Are You Willing to Adapt Your Strategy With Difficult People, or Should You Just Get Out Now?

©2016 Megan Hunter, MBA.

High Conflict Institute’s International Speaker and Trainer, Megan Hunter, MBA, poses some tough questions when it comes to relationships with High Conflict People:

  • Why should I be the one to adapt?

  • Should I just leave?

  • Nothing seems to work – is that true?

Read on for potential solutions:

High-conflict cases in the courts and high-conflict personalities (HCPs) in the workplace get a lot of play these days and we’re seeing more people than ever claiming expertise in dealing with them. But should they? What qualifies anyone as an expert, or even moderately competent, to take on a high-conflict case, workplace or other dispute?

Many wise people avoid HCP cases/situations/relationships like the plague. They know that they don’t like dealing with them because of the exhaustion and risk, or their wise mind tells them they’re not qualified.

Others walk blindly into high-conflict situations and find themselves caught in a trap that often ends badly.

High-conflict cases require expertise. You must:

Have Expertise in Identifying One or More Potential HCPs

Can you sniff out a truly high-conflict case? Do you know one when you see one? Do you know you’re getting it right? That you’re accurately identifying the one (or maybe both) who truly has the characteristics of an HCP? Maybe you are adept at spotting one or more HCPs, but is that the extent of your expertise? For some, identifying the true HCP is difficult. The risk is in getting it backwards. Identifying a truly “upset” person who has finally lost their cool vs. a true HCP. How do you know? How do you tell? It’s not just important, it’s imperative.

Commit to Truthfulness

Because we walk on eggshells around HCPs, it’s tempting to avoid being truthful with them. Unfortunately, this is a sabotage approach. Most will respond in a better manner more consistently to people who are truthful.

Avoid Advocating for a Bulldozer Approach

If we accept and truly believe that HCPs require an adapted strategy, then we’ve accepted that they are a population who need professionals who are willing to abandon their bulldozer approach. With HCPs, it might be worth thinking about whether we are ethically and morally obligated to adapting our strategy and helping them along their difficult journey instead of encouraging more conflict, litigation, separation, and possibly termination.

Have Good Boundaries

What are boundaries? Sounds like something we need to read about in a book about saving a marriage. With HCPs, you do them no favors by bending your boundaries. They’re used to everyone around them bending boundaries because we’re so used to walking on eggshells around them. Having boundaries with HCPs means staying calm, remaining firm with gentleness, telling the truth always, holding them to their word, holding them to the laws, policies and guidelines of the courts, workplace or other governing bodies. When we offer good, consistent boundaries, we provide structure, which provides a sense of comfort and safety for them. Listen, but not too long. When you say you’ve scheduled a one-hour meeting, hold to it. Remind yourself to thoughtfully consider all requests, especially on-the-spot situations, before agreeing.

Leaving Decisions up to Them

We’re problem-solvers by nature, especially at work. Our jobs require us to be in left brain, analytical, problem-solving mode all day, so it’s natural to come up with solutions for our clients, employees or others that we’re trying to help. Even if HCPs grasp onto your solution, it’s at risk for backfiring in a big way if it doesn’t work out exactly as they expected. It’s okay to help them come up with several ideas, but the ultimate decision must be left to them. Why? It makes them think, and when they’re thinking their brain feels calmer. When their brain feels calmer, they problem-solve better. It’s a good cycle. Plus, they’re more likely to stick with their own decisions and they’re more than likely to eventually blame you if they adopt your solutions.

Keep Your Emotions Out of It

We’re not robots. We’re human. We’re going to get emotionally ‘hooked’ in highly charged high-conflict situations. Some of us don’t react to heightened HCP energy, but that’s the minority. Most of us get emotionally ‘hooked’ at times. The trick is learning to override your emotional response (to argue, explain, get angry, shut down).

The above points are critical to dealing successfully with HCPs, but they are meaningless without the most important ingredient—EMPATHY.

It’s so hard. We’re faced with extending empathy to people who make us feel repulsed by or even afraid of them at times. This can be the most difficult activity for many and it’s the question most asked by those who have worked with them. So how can you summon empathy when you would rather run as far and as fast as you can away from them? It all comes down to understanding their fear-based, invisible (to them and to us) personality that parades as the opposite of what it really is. Recently I’ve begun explaining it this way to people who are tired of dealing with HCPs and having a difficult time conjuring up empathy. I paint a picture of that person treading water alone in the ocean. When we extend logic, explanation, insults and avoidance to them, they just sink deeper. Arms flailing, they’re barely able to keep their head above water. When we extend EAR® (Empathy, Attention, and Respect) to them, they’re able to float, and when they’re floating they can relax a little. When they relax, they can think.

Empathy is King. It’s the Ultimate Kindness.

Can you adapt your strategy in these ways when working with HCPs? If you’ve tried unsuccessfully, try the ocean struggle strategy. It takes just a little bit of discipline on your part. It costs you nothing. You have nothing to lose. I think you’ll be surprised at the empowerment you’ll feel when your upset, insult-hurling person calms down as a result of your empathy. You’ll want to try it again and again because you’ll understand that adapting your strategy has profound impact on other humans who don’t even realize they need you to adapt.

Expect more flare-ups, again and again. Just continue using EAR when they do. The more often you respond with EAR, the more confident and comfortable they will feel because their trust will increase.

If you adamantly refuse to adapt your strategy to one of empathy first, then you’ll do everyone a favor if you step away and allow others to deal with them. It may best for you to get out now. But I encourage you to try adapting your strategy even if you think you can’t or you know you’re a stubborn creature. You just might be successful and even get a little addicted to the positive impact your discipline has on others.

Agree? Disagree? Leave your comments below and Megan will respond and learn. What works for you? What has backfired? We’d love to hear from you!

MEGAN HUNTER, MBA is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. She is a keynote speaker and provides training on high-conflict situations. She created the Conflict Influencer™ Certification and strongly believes that most have the ability to influence conflict. She has written several books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and around the world.

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