© 2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Whether you’re choosing a friend, getting married, deciding where to work, electing a leader (such as a President) or just trying to understand someone’s behavior, it helps to have personality awareness skills. This has become especially important in modern times for several reasons. Once you have personality awareness skills, you will start noticing patterns of behavior you didn’t think about before. While most of our articles, books and videos are about how to manage people with “high conflict” personalities, this article is about how to avoid bringing new high-conflict personalities into your life. (I am working on a new book on this topic and welcome your thoughts and case examples on how you predicted or overlooked warning signs of future high-conflict behavior.)
Why Is This Important Now?
We live in times that are changing rapidly, in which we operate more as individuals and we need to choose who we associate with on a daily basis. Just a hundred years ago, most of the world’s people lived their whole lives in the same rural community. There wasn’t a lot of choice over who you lived with, worked with and slept with. Everyone knew each other’s business, and families and friends had lots of information and advice about who you should associate with and who to avoid.
Over these hundred years, mobility has changed dramatically. Family members are spread out across a country. Companies may move from state to state or even overseas. People expect to have many jobs over their careers – and possibly several careers. About ten years ago, the world’s population shifted so that the majority now live in urban areas. You will meet hundreds of people – sometimes in a single day. Most of them have no known history to you and some have created entirely false images of themselves. Now, when you’re choosing who to invite into your life, it’s up to you!
Personalities Have Patterns
We all have personalities. They’re made up of how we regularly think, manage our feelings and behave. While we have some choice within our personality, we generally act like ourselves over the course of our adult lives. If you go to a high school or college reunion, people may look different but they generally keep acting like themselves. Personalities don’t change much once we’re adults, but most of us have a wide range of behavior within our personality patterns.
High conflict personalities have narrower patterns of behavior. Most appear to have personality disorders or traits of personality disorders. This means that their “enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.” (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC, 2013.) This means that they repeat their dysfunctional behavior over and over again, regardless of the feedback they may get. Surprisingly, this makes their behavior more predictable than the average person. While you couldn’t convict someone based simply on their pattern of behavior, you can use this as a predictive tool for who to avoid inviting into your life.
General Pattern of High Conflict Personalities
All of the high conflict personalities have a pattern of aggressively escalating conflict – either prolonging it or creating surprisingly intense moments that are way out of proportion to the situation. Thus, they are “high conflict.” They may be violent or never violent. What drives this high conflict behavior is a preoccupation with blaming others – their target of blame. Related to this target of blame is a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking (it’s all your fault and not mine at all), unmanaged emotions (out-of-control yelling, crying, etc.), and extreme behavior (doing things that 90% of people would never do).
Example: A new friend whispers to you that so-and-so nearby is a real jerk. “No one likes so-and-so, he’s a real loser, can’t keep a job and you should avoid him like the plague. He has absolutely no positive qualities.”
A person without personality awareness skills might think that so-and-so is therefore a real jerk and to be avoided. But someone with personality awareness skills knows to consider that the new friend might actually be the person to avoid and that so-and-so is actually a nice guy. More information is needed and those with these skills know generally where to look.
An Open Mind
Personality awareness skills require an open mind. In the example above, one must have at least three theories of what is being said:
Theory 1: What new friend says about so-and-so is true. Avoid so-and-so. New friend is okay.
Theory 2: What new friend says about so-and-so shows new friend will be a problem and not so-and-so. Avoid new friend. So-and-so is okay.
Theory 3: Both new friend and so-and-so have problems and both should be avoided.
What to Look For
How do you figure out which theory fits this situation? First, you can look for the general pattern of high-conflict personalities and see if any information you have now fits either new friend or so-and-so. Since you haven’t met so-and-so, but you are getting to know new friend, a good place to start would be thinking about new friend and examining the way that he or she has just spoken to you.
All-or-nothing thinking: Hmm. The statement “He has absolutely no positive qualities” is suspicious. It’s not just “no positive qualities,” it’s “absolutely no positive qualities.” Be cautious.
Unmanaged emotions: Hmm. This doesn’t seem to be an issue, although it raises my concern that he or she couldn’t wait to tell you this and had to immediately whisper to you while near so-and-so.
Extreme behavior: Hmm. There doesn’t seem to be anything much here, since it’s not uncommon for people to whisper to their friends in the vicinity of people they are whispering about.
Blaming others: This seems to be part of the message being given: so-and-so is all bad.
Five High Conflict Personality Patterns
These four characteristics above are a good starting point. Then, you can look for characteristics that fit any of the five high conflict personality disorders in the DSM-5: narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, paranoid and histrionic. Of course, not everyone with one of these personality disorders has a high-conflict personality, because they don’t focus on a target of blame. But most high conflict people (HCPs) appear to have one of these five personality patterns.
Narcissistic HCPs: For example, common traits of this personality include being grandiose, demanding excessive admiration and lacking empathy. (DSM-5) They commonly see the world in terms of winners and losers. If you just know this about them (splitting the world into “winners” and “losers”), with personality awareness skills you can also predict at least ten possibilities; that they will:
Be very charming – to everyone, not just you; you will not be special to them for long;
Be self-absorbed, talking constantly about themselves and paying less attention to you;
See themselves as constantly victimized by others and constantly tell you about it;
Be sore losers, never admitting a loss, finding someone else to blame for any set-back;
Engage in lawsuits, spreading rumors or even violence against any person who caused them to have a “narcissistic injury” exposing their imperfections;
Have a drive to be the group leader, or at least the center of attention;
Not work hard, take credit for other’s work, and quit if they don’t get lots of respect;
Increasingly insult you in relationships, including in front of others;
Demand your constant admiration and, when that fades, look elsewhere for others who will give them fresh new absolute admiration – then deny they are doing that;
At some point lose interest in you and possibly even forget that you ever existed.
This is just one example of using personality awareness to help you predict the likelihood of difficult relationship behavior ahead – whether you are dating, hiring, electing or otherwise inviting someone into your life for a potential long-term relationship. There is much more it than this and difficult personalities vary from more extreme to more tolerable.
Each of the other five high conflict personality types have their own predictable patterns of behavior, although some of these personality types overlap, depending on the specific person. With personality awareness skills, you will have a method of predicting some possible future behavior, rather than just allowing yourself to be charmed in the present or mistakenly avoiding the people who could be positive in your life.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of the High Conflict Institute. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He is the author of 20+ books and has a popular podcast and a blog on Psychology Today.