Giving High Conflict Employees a Chance to Change

Image showing wooden letter blocks with Change and Change.

©2021 Megan Hunter, MBA

Workplace conflict is challenging.

It requires time, depletes morale, disrupts the workflow, and ultimately sabotages competitive advantage and mission. We typically give up on challenging employees, but what if we knew the strategies that would give them a chance to change?

Before I go further, if you’re thinking that not all conflict is bad, I agree. Conflict happens all the time and most of it is managed without negative lasting fallout. High conflict is different because it involves blame, accusations, high emotion, and all-or-nothing solutions, which lead to frequent meetings with human resources, managers, up to the highest levels. People with high conflict personalities (P-HCPs) have lots of dilemmas and complaints that feel life-or-death in that moment. So they react right now because it feels that important right now. Most people stop before they act. P-HCPS don’t. If you’re smacking your forehead yet again wondering why this person keeps doing the same self-defeating and disruptive actions, you may be dealing with someone with a high conflict personality.

If you have P-HCPs in your organization, you know how frustrating and time-consuming it can be, and despite your best efforts, you think you’re out of options. That is partially true. The strategies used in ordinary conflict don’t work well in high-conflict situations. New strategies are required but they’re not part of our usual skill set, so we often unintentionally make the situation worse. Instead, try these strategies and see if you can make some headway and gain some peace:

  • Attention and Connection

Giving someone a compliment on their shoes or asking how their weekend went can go a long way, especially when combined with a smile, eye contact, and a pleasant tone of voice.

Most people are craving connection during the lockdowns and strange times we’ve experienced the past nearly two years, so this strategy works well for almost anyone (we’re all a bit stressed). Note the use of the term “craving” above. If you’re craving connection, multiply that by ten to begin to understand the P-HCP brain’s quest for connection. The HCP brain craves connection and attention, which to you may seem like giving in to them, but it’s not. What you’re giving is a gift that they can’t get on their own.

Take the time, make the connection, and be authentic. Do it again the next day and the next. The time it takes has a positive payoff in the moment and in the long run. If they continue to bring complaints and dilemmas, you’ll have a better footing to set some limits and steer them in the right direction. Or make different decisions.

  • Dilemmas and Decisions

P-HCPs are stuck in a repeat cycle of dilemmas and crises to which they’re constantly reacting. These aren’t dilemmas about work product. They are dilemmas involving people and relationships — the hardest thing in the world for them.

The next time someone brings a complaint or dilemma to you, ask them to take a pen and paper to write a list of options for addressing that dilemma – from the most ridiculous and extreme to the most reasonable and everything in between. This is part 1.

The next step, part 2, is vital. Ask them to check each option for these four things and cross out any yes answers. What they’re left with may likely be the least high conflict option.

Questions to ask about each option:

  1. Does it include blame or defensiveness?

  2. Is it all-or-nothing?

  3. Is it extreme?

  4. Is it coming from emotion?

You will have to coach them through this the first few times and remind them to use it every time they have a dilemma. The main issue that you’ll want to help them with is to stop themselves and remember to do this. Their default is to react right away, so you’re teaching a valuable skill by helping them learn to stop themselves, analyze their options, and make decisions about their own dilemmas. P-HCPs want other people to solve their dilemmas, but when you do, it will typically backfire and your best advice won’t be taken.

It takes time and practice, and you’ll need to remind each time they come to you with a dilemma to analyze their options. Tell them that any time they have a strong feeling, it’s a sign to pause and analyze their options. This helps them calm their emotions, shift into thinking mode, and gives them control over their decisions.

If they ultimately make a not-so-great decision, at least it’s their decision and they’ve had a chance to think about it. Make sure you use EAR (empathy, attention, respect) in all conversations with them.

  • BIFF Response® for Written Communication

Again, because it’s hard for P-HCPs to stop themselves before doing something self-sabotaging, giving them a structured method for writing emails, texts, DMs or anything in writing will help. Teach them this simple method for both writing to someone and responding to someone.

BRIEF: 2-5 sentences is all that’s needed typically

INFORMATIVE: focus on facts and straight information

FRIENDLY: use a friendly tone

FIRM: close it firmly and if you need a response, offer two or more options for the other person to choose from

Everyone in an organization should use BIFF as a matter of course for all email interaction. It calms everyone, whether high conflict or not, but it especially calms and contains the conflict when high conflict personalities are involved, and it saves so much time!

  • EAR Statement™ for Verbal Communication

Thinking about craving again, the HCP brain craves three things:

1. empathy

2. attention

3. respect

It craves them because it feels lost without them.

It craves them because it’s in react mode.

It craves them because the feeling is intense and powerful.

There’s nothing easier than giving an upset person an EAR Statement. It’s a gift.

So, why don’t we do it more often? Because we’re also stuck in our own defaults of explaining, arguing, right-fighting, or we’re simply in problem-solving mode, failing to include the missing element – the human brain element. It’s a neuro-difference. That’s all.

Will this solve all high conflict situations?

No, because some P-HCPs need more, but what this does is it gives people a chance to change. A chance to focus on the organizational mission instead of focusing on their feelings. They need a little extra help. The investment in learning the hack may get them and you past the barrier and into the high-performing parts of them.

If they don’t learn the skills, well then, you may want to apply the law of diminishing returns. You can do the same analyzing options exercise about your options about their continued employment or involvement. Those who can’t change will show themselves by not learning the skills. You’ll know because they’ll continue knocking on your door with dilemmas.

Learn more about using these skills in our virtual training: Handling High Conflict Situations and Challenging Employees in the Workplace: New Ways for Work. Or we have many helpful books.


MEGAN HUNTER, MBA is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. She developed the concept of the Institute after 13 years in policy, legislation, and judicial training at the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Offices of the Court. Along with leading HCI’s international team, she has co-authored several books on high conflict disputes and has trained professionals in the U.S. and seven countries.

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