©2016 Megan Hunter, MBA
Whether you’re in a dispute with your brother, classmate, work colleague, spouse or even someone you don’t know, conflict is stressful. We talk about healthy and unhealthy conflict, and yes, some conflict is healthy, but conflict is almost always a distraction from work, life, family and other important things we all have to do. Worse, when conflict is stirred up by someone with a high conflict personality (HCP) and you become their target of blame, you’re not only distracted, you’re probably furious, scared, stressed out, perplexed, feel like you can’t control the situation, and maybe even fear for your livelihood and sanity.
What’s the difference between conflict with a reasonable person, even if they are angry, and a high conflict person (HCP) who has chosen you as their target of blame?
Regular conflict has it’s roots in differences that have merit, or maybe a misunderstanding or miscommunication between people. It may take a while to reach resolution and an ongoing relationship may be out of the question, but both sides are usually willing to compromise even a little in order to achieve resolution. They want to move on and don’t dwell on the issue, even if they have to compromise.
High conflict disputes may also have roots in differences that have merit, but more than likely they don’t. Even if they do, it’s how conflict is handled that separates the reasonable person from the HCP.
Do you remember the Bill Engvall comedy routine in which he tells a joke and ends it “Here’s your sign”? Kind of a “duh, did I really have to explain that to you” statement. Conflict with an HCP is similar. When you hear an allegation or receive a demand from someone that just seems completely unreasonable or even a little unreasonable and you realize your head is cocked to the side and your face is screwed up in a perplexed look……..well, here’s your sign. You’re possibly (most likely) dealing with an HCP.
What’s the difference between a reasonable person and an HCP?
The HCP won’t compromise. You compromise and compromise again and again, but they won’t and don’t.
They have to win no matter what.
When you think you’ve done everything possible to compromise, they come up with a new list of allegations and demands that feel like an attempt to punish and humiliate you.
They won’t budge an inch to meet you in the middle; not even a centimeter.
When you feel like you’ve compromised and given in 100%, they come up with another demand or allegation.
They turn others against you and try causing division in teams, partnerships, and other relationships.
They won’t deviate from their position even if it hurts them, their position, their case, etc.
You know what the HCP is saying isn’t true, and you can prove it. They don’t care if you can prove it—they’re going to do it anyway.
They may lodge false accusations with no basis in fact.
What does this look like in the real-world? Here’s an example.
Cut Your Nose Off to Spite Your Face
A small business owner who sold t-shirts at fairs and other events had an opportunity to sell a new t-shirt at a specific event. The shirts sold very well but there were a few left at the end, so he took them to the next event in another town and sold the remainder there and even took orders for more that would be shipped directly to the customers. Thinking the vendor from whom he’d purchased the t-shirts originally would be thrilled to hear the good news, he excitedly relayed the news.
However, the response was far different from expected. The vendor was angry. She insisted that she’d not granted permission for him to sell anywhere but that single location. [In this case, there were no legal or other restrictions preventing the sale in other locations]. She refused to sell him the t-shirts that had sold over and above and screamed that she’d never let him re-sell shirts from her company ever again! He even offered to forward 100% of the profit from the additional sales to her—she could keep all of it. Still, she refused.
He was confused of course, and this is where most of us get caught in the HCP trap. We expect rationality from everyone. Our brain fights to find rationality, so we explain our position, explain the logic, explain that the t-shirt vendor actually made more profit due to selling at the second event. We do our best. We even offer to lose money on the deal. It lands on deaf ears. Why? Because the issue’s not the issue—the personality is the issue.
We’re trying to throw logic and rationality at a brain with an operating system driven by a fear. In this case it was likely a fear of feeling inferior. How dare you make the unilateral decision to sell shirts without checking with me first and getting my permission?!?!?!
In the meantime, this poor fellow got more frustrated and stressed. It seemed that he could do nothing—not even with his most persuasive skills—to get her to “get it”. He was willing to bend over backwards to accommodate her, even to the point of losing his hard-earned money. He apologized, but even that wasn’t enough. She was relentless. With each little victory, she was empowered to seek more victory. At one point she threatened to contact the Better Business Bureau and also promised that she and her entire organization would never do business with him again.
So, what should he have done?
This is the trickiest part of all. The moment that her response, reaction and demands seemed illogical or unreasonable, he should have reminded himself of the Bill Engvall phrase . . . “Here’s your sign.”
1) The minute someone seems entirely unreasonable, you have to override your natural response (hard to do because you don’t have to override your natural response 99% of your day); take a step back, get unhooked from your way of thinking, and put on your HCP hat. What is that? It’s the invisible hat that reminds you that this person possibly has a high-conflict personality, which means they’re going to handle conflict from their fear base, whether it’s fear of feeling disconnected/abandoned, inferior, ignored or dominated. Remind yourself that this isn’t about you; don’t take it personally or get angry.
2) Remove logic from your argument. Don’t try explaining your position or using logic to get the HCP to “understand.” They won’t.
3) Start using a connect and shift strategy. And then take time to devise a strategy that would get the result you want. In the situation above, a friendly and firm response could have helped. “Oh, that’s unfortunate. I sure didn’t intend to upset you.” This connection part is important as it helps to calm her inferior feeling. Next is the shift to get her into logical thinking: “Let’s see if we can think of a way that will get you the money that I owe you quickly. Oh, and by the way, the extra sales are $xxx.xx more than expected. Hopefully that will be a feather in your cap. I bet you’ll look like a rock star! How’s that sound?”
What he’s done is addressed her need to feel superior (and it is a valid need) by illustrating that increased sales were a good thing and she could use them to make herself look good to other people. Once he gets confirmation on that, he can proceed by stating that he would be sending a check for $xxx.xx amount in today’s mail and will email the address to which she can ship the extra t-shirts. Doing this with confidence is part of the trick, as long as he keeps her feeling like she’s winning and it’s her idea.
It doesn’t work with everyone. The issue may need to be raised up the chain to a supervisor, the company owner, or others in charge. If that isn’t possible, either find another place to purchase the t-shirts or refund your customers the money because you may be out of options.
We have to remember that we won’t always get resolution with HCPs. Some are what I classify as “spicy”—a 9 or 10 out of 10 on the HCP range. If they are, you may have a hard time making any progress. At that point, it’s a risk assessment or cost/benefit analysis to see if it’s worth your time, effort and money.
The stress comes in when we fail to recognize that we’re dealing with an HCP. When we keep doing the same thing with them that we use with everyone else. Our heart rate increases, we feel instantly angry or scared. We want to explain/fight or hang up/leave/run. Our muscles tighten, we feel stressed. Then, if we fail to get unhooked and take the different path, we will feel more stress and some of us might even blow a gasket and start yelling. Don’t bother. It’s hard on your mind and your body. Save yourself the headache—because it’s not about 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.