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.

A Respectful Meeting Policy

people sitting around a conference table in a meeting

©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and L. Georgi DiStefano   As high conflict personalities appear to be increasing in society and the workplace, we are hearing more reports of disrespectful behavior during business meetings these days. Sad to say that this even is a topic that needs to be addressed. But since much of today’s work goes on in meetings, we’d like to present some strategies we are developing that anyone can use who is faced with this issue.   Disrespectful Behavior Disrespectful meeting behavior can include: constantly interrupting the meeting chairperson or other participants, opposing the pre-planned agenda, inviting inappropriate people to the meeting, coming late and disrupting the progress of the meeting, taking calls in front of others, unnecessarily surfing the Internet, disparaging remarks or disregard for women or younger employees or older employees, yelling, dramatically walking out, throwing paper, and so forth. It is especially difficult when the disruptive person(s) has needed information but is behaving in this manner. Some people are oblivious to their impact on the group discussion, while others enjoy the power they have to be disruptive because they have needed information and see themselves as superior to the group. Regardless of the motivations, here are five suggestions: 1. Post a Policy Whether a policy is posted on the wall of a meeting room, or on small cards on a table, it can help set the tone for a meeting, especially if there are outsiders who don’t know how meetings are run at a particular office. It shows the organization’s support for respectful meetings from the top on down. This can be similar to No Smoking signs or other common warnings. The policy could say something like this: Respectful Meeting Policy: At A____ Company, much of our work is accomplished at meetings. In order to ensure the smooth, respectful and efficient management of meetings, the meeting chair shall manage the Agenda and the right of members to speak. On rare occasions, a meeting member may become disrespectful in communicating their information and opinions. In such a case, the meeting chair shall ask the meeting member to revise their manner of speech to be respectful. In the event that the meeting member does not thereafter speak respectfully, the chair may announce a short break or end the meeting, in the meeting chair’s discretion. Other meeting members shall support the chair in making such decisions. With such a policy announcement somewhere, a meeting chairperson can refer to it in the event that someone becomes disruptive or disrespectful. It will also strengthen the other group members to support the chairperson in enforcing this policy. Furthermore, it shows that the organization values the input of everyone and will not tolerate individuals who attempt to hijack the agenda or the running of a meeting. 2. Immediate Intervention by Meeting Chair When such disruptions or disparaging remarks occur, many meeting chairs are caught off-guard, and they stop and just listen to the disruptive person. It can be quite jarring when someone suddenly goes in the opposite direction of the meeting. In such cases, the meeting chair is encouraged to immediately assert their role as chair of the meeting and interrupt the disruptive person. They can say something like: “We appreciate your interest in expressing your point of view. However, this is not the right time [or right manner] for you to do so. Please hold off for now [or speak in a calmer tone], so that we can stay focused on our Agenda. Now, we were discussing…” And then the meeting chair should change eye contact to the others in the room. By quickly doing this, the disruptive person does not gain traction or attention for being disruptive.  This is especially important in volunteer organizations, nonprofits and other groups where everyone else is trying to be nice. Unfortunately, when dealing with a high conflict person, you have to be immediate and assertive, otherwise, they will hijack the meeting. If the individual is continually disruptive, the chair of the meeting should meet privately with the individual to reinforce the meeting policies and procedures. The supervisor should be involved in the process in order to be in compliance with the company’s progressive discipline process. 3. Other Participants Support the Meeting Chairperson One of the common characteristics of high-conflict people is that they are always recruiting negative advocates. So it is not unusual that a meeting disrupter to turn to other meeting members for support in challenging the agenda and taking over the meeting. Or making a disparaging remark and then turning to other meeting members to try to get a laugh out of them. Generally, when meeting participants realize this dynamic, they will just avoid paying attention to the disrupter, so that the meeting chair can maintain control of the meeting. Another way that participants can be helpful is to gently admonish the person making disparaging remarks or being otherwise disruptive, by saying something like: “That’s enough, Joe.” And then turning their attention back to the meeting chair. It isn’t necessary to stop everything to give a long speech about how inappropriate someone else is being. This can be done very quickly, with a minimum of effort. In some cases, the whole group can just stay focused on the meeting chair and not give the disruptive person any attention at all. Since the goal of most high-conflict people is to get attention, this will either slow them down or they will leave. 4. Establish the Agenda in Advance One of the easiest ways to get group support for the meeting is to give people an opportunity to contribute to the Agenda in advance of the meeting. Then, the final meeting Agenda can be posted or distributed before the meeting occurs. Then, it is very difficult for a meeting disrupter to hijack the Agenda. Often they want to throw out the Agenda and replace it with their seemingly much more urgent issue. Or they sometimes say that the presumptions underlying today’s Agenda