High Conflict People – Who are they?

question mark painted on gray brick wall

They have a psychological barrier against examining their own behavior, and therefore they don’t change their own behavior, even when it would help them. Instead, they defend their actions and personalities—and remain stuck repeating their self-defeating behavior.

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Dealing with Difficult People

©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Difficult people – we call them high conflict personalities – have a pattern of negative behavior with four primary characteristics: All-or-nothing thinking; unmanaged emotions; extreme behavior or threats; and a preoccupation with blaming others. Therefore, they tend to escalate conflicts, rather than to manage or resolve them — and they take no responsibility for their part in the problem. This can be quite surprising and frustrating for others. In an effort to manage or resolve conflict, most of us try methods that work with reasonable people, but fail and often make things worse with high conflict people (HCPs). Here are four of the biggest mistakes when dealing with HCPs; I’ve made them all: Trying to give them insight into their own behavior This is really hard to accept, but they may lack self-awareness and self-reflection and so your efforts to “make them see” what they are doing or “make them understand” how badly they are behaving will fall on deaf ears — and likely make things worse. What often happens is that people try harder and harder, and talk louder and louder, to hammer HCPs with what they are doing wrong. You will find that this insight-oriented feedback just doesn’t work. In addition, trying to give them insight into their own behavioral issues will damage your relationship with them. They will feel that you don’t like them as they are, and that they have to defend themselves and prove that you are wrong. Since they see things in all-or-nothing terms, your feedback — no matter how nicely you try to give it — will trigger deep resentments, and now they will see you as a threat. Focusing on the past HCPs may be stuck in the past, defending themselves and attacking others for their past behavior. Avoid asking them about what happened or how they feel about past events. Instead, focus on the future action: What do you want to do now? What do you suggest for solving this problem? Sometimes giving them information can help: “That sounds frustrating. Did you know that . . . is now available as an option?” You can also emphasize choices. Choices are about the future, so you can turn any problem in the past into a choice about the future. Often, HCPs only see one choice, and don’t like it. Telling them about other options can open their thinking some, and they may feel less hopeless. Having emotional confrontations High-conflict people are often emotionally sensitive and reactive to other people’s emotions. Therefore, it helps to keep your own emotions calm and in a moderate range. This will help them stay as calm and reasonable as possible. If you get angry at them, tell them how frustrated you feel, or burst into tears in front of them, it’s likely to trigger their own emotional vulnerability. Then, they can get much angrier, or frustrated, or tearful than you can, because they are used to being stuck in their emotions and have a hard time regulating them. This is also because emotions are contagious, and high-conflict emotions are highly contagious. Telling them they have a personality disorder (or high conflict personality) This is always tempting as a way to try to give them insight one last time, or to vent your frustration. But it’s a huge mistake. Since they’re so defensive so much of the time and have all-or-nothing thinking, this can feel like a devastating blow, and you are guaranteed to feel their wrath over it for days, weeks, or years. I’ll give you an example: I once did a consultation with three adult sisters who had recently told their mother that she had borderline personality disorder during a holiday visit. It didn’t go well. Their mother cut off all contact with them, and their father did too. They were devastated. They had such high hopes that their mother would realize she had this problem and would finally get some help. The sisters made all four of these mistakes, with totally good intentions. We discussed how they could repair things over time by focusing on light conversations and never raising this subject again, unless they tried a totally new approach after getting professional assistance. They felt that some relationship — despite the limitations — was better than none. Why we keep making these mistakes It’s human nature to want to help people, especially when we can see so clearly what they could do better. With reasonable people, we do this all the time. Yet with HCPs, whether out of frustration or lack of understanding, we keep trying harder, rather than taking a different approach. In future and past blogs, we give you some tips for spotting five types of high-conflict people and share some key methods we have learned about how to deal with them in a positive and most successful way. Stay tuned! When a high conflict person has one of five common personality disorders—borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, antisocial, or histrionic—they can lash out in risky extremes of emotion and aggression. And once an HCP decides to target you, they’re hard to shake. But there are ways to protect yourself. BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. 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 has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

You Know You’re Taking It Personally When…

©2009 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. When you are involved with a High Conflict Person (HCP) whether personally or professionally, you have experienced how easy it is to get “hooked” into the conflict and how difficult it is to not take it personally. You can recognize the signs of taking it personally and learn how to manage your own emotions and work on solving the problem. You know you’re taking it personally when… You feel you have to defend yourself. You feel emotionally hooked with fear or anger. You feel the natural “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. You start thinking It’s All Your Fault! about the other person. You think there’s only one way to deal with this problem and you have no choice. You feel you have to prove something to the other person or to other people. You feel the other person is knowingly taking advantage of you. You feel the other person is knowingly getting away with something. With this list, I’m not saying that HCP’s actions are okay and you should just ignore them.  In a future article I’ll discuss other methods of dealing with the HCP’s misinformation and misbehavior.  For purposes of this article, I’m just saying you’ll become emotionally hooked and much less effective in dealing with an HCP if you get stuck thinking or feeling these things. The goal is to solve the problem. HCP’s avoid solving problems by becoming preoccupied with blame.  If you take it personally and respond in a similar manner, you’ll prolong the dispute, increase the frustration you experience, and possibly appear as though you’re an HCP (or the only HCP) to other people who become involved in the case. Remind yourself that it’s unconscious. This high-conflict behavior isn’t a conscious process for the HCP.  He or she is not “knowingly” taking advantage of you.  His or her actions are driven by unconscious personality patterns.  This doesn’t mean that everything they do is unconscious.  Most HCP’s I’ve handled have lied about something and knowingly engaged in behavior that’s improper.  But they’re driven to do these “bad” things for unconscious reasons. There’s always been a Target of Blame. Before you and after you, the HCP will have treated somebody else the same way—because it’s about the HCP’s personality pattern of blame, not about you.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider changing your own behavior, re-examining your own values, or making different decisions.  You should always be considering ways to change and improve your life.  It just means the cause of the emotionally intense and negative feedback from an HCP is his or her personality. Maintain your own mental and physical health. You’re much less likely to be triggered by an HCP when you’re feeling good.  You don’t take on as much blame and it’s easy to see that it’s not all anyone’s fault.  On the other hand, when we get run down we’re more likely to lash out at others and easily allow ourselves to get emotionally hooked.  This part is our own responsibility—our own part of the problem. And we must be continually aware of this.  Getting exercise and enough sleep are good practices. Get support and consultation. Checking out our responses with trusted friends or a therapist is essential when responding to a High Conflict Person.  We often aren’t conscious of when we’re being defensive.  Friends and therapists can be very helpful in seeing what you can’t see.  They can suggest positive responses you might not be able to think of under stress.  Learn our BIFF Response® method for replying (or not) to hostile texts and emails and get BIFF Response® coaching, if you need more help. Don’t engage in a personal battle. If you’re already engaged in a personal battle, then disengage now.  At any time, you can let go of taking it personally.  Remember, HCP’s are more comfortable making it simple and personal.  It doesn’t mean they’re happy doing this; it’s just that it’s familiar to them.  They feel safer being engaged in a conflict that’s personal.  So, you’ll naturally feel like responding personally. Once you realize you’re about to respond personally, tell yourself:  Don’t engage!  If you have already started responding in a personal, defensive manner, you can still tell yourself:  Disengage! This part is up to you.  Remember:  Don’t take it personally.  You don’t have to defend yourself.  It’s not about YOU! BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. 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 has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.