© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Have you noticed more people engaging in “high conflict” behavior these days at work? A customer in a store yells loudly at a storeowner or clerk. Someone spits at officer writing a parking ticket. A co-worker sends nasty emails out to the whole department. An employee threatens to hit a co-worker, then claims it was just a joke. A supervisor bullies an employee after the supervisor makes a mistake.
This behavior is considered “high conflict” because it increases conflict instead of reducing or resolving it. This can catch you by surprise, especially when it is done by someone who seemed reasonable at first. Most people with these types of extreme behaviors have a repeated pattern of high-conflict behavior. It’s part of who they are. They didn’t just make a mistake or act out of the blue – they have done this before and will do it again.
We think of them as “high conflict” people (HCPs). They aren’t just difficult. They’re the most difficult people, because their pattern includes the following:
4 Key Characteristics of HCPs:
Preoccupied with Blaming Others – they unconsciously put a spin on how they view other people, the world and problems. They exaggerate the negative or the positive – then switch to negative when others don’t turn out to be as unrealistically positive as they thought. They take things personally that aren’t, then they attack back. Their emotions interfere with their logical thinking and they believe these thinking distortions about other people without question – and blame them for everything.
All or Nothing Thinking – they tend to try to control relationships or avoid them. They see others as all-good or all-bad. Therefore, their relationships are often unrealistic and a frequent crisis for them. They generally want to be secure, but they undermine themselves on a regular basis causing relationship insecurity without even realizing why. They often look to fulfill their intense personal relationship needs at work, where it’s very unlikely they can be met.
Unmanaged Emotions – they tend to react emotionally and to focus backwards on the past. Looking to the future is hard for them because they are so emotionally absorbed in their emotional reactions. They are preoccupied with arguing over who caused the problem, rather than analyzing it and looking at options for fixing it. (Be aware that some of them don’t show their emotional upsets, but become silently preoccupied with getting revenge or vindication.)
Extreme Behavior – they tend to become more extreme in their behavior when things go badly, rather than backing off and trying a different approach. They don’t connect their problems to what they are doing, so they try to stop or change other people, rather than themselves. When this doesn’t work, they become more frustrated, desperate and intense in their misdirected efforts.
To make matters worse, they lack insight into their own behavior and how they contribute to their own problems. They sometimes become persuasive blamers, so that others actually believe them when they tell everyone it’s all someone else’s fault – maybe even all your fault!
Yes, chances are high that you will eventually become an HCP’s target of blame. When someone treats you that way, you have to learn to deal with them – because it’s a pattern of behavior that won’t just go away.
But this is the bad news. The good news is that most HCPs have a range of behavior which you can influence with the right methods. You can often bring out the best or the worst in them by how you respond.
How It Often Feels to You
When you’re dealing with an HCP, you may feel frustrated, hopeless, enraged, confused or a lot of other emotions. These are natural fight, flight or freeze responses to unrestrained aggressive behavior – a hallmark of HCPs. Yet most of our natural responses to HCPs often backfire and make things worse. You may have already discovered this.
You CAN Deal with Them using the CARS Method®
As frustrating as they are, HCPs tend to have predictable patterns of behavior which you can recognize once you learn the warning signs. This means that you can learn effective ways of dealing with them at work (or anywhere!) when you recognize their patterns of behavior. One important point is to NEVER tell the person you think he or she is a high conflict person. It will make your life much worse if you do. Just keep it to yourself and adjust your strategies for dealing with the person.
Once you recognize – or even just suspect – that you are dealing with a high-conflict person, there is a four-step method that we have developed that is generally effective at calming their behavior and focusing them on solving problems. We call this the CARS MethodSM and it stands for:
CONNECTING with empathy, attention and respect
ANALYZING alternatives or choices
RESPONDING to misinformation
SETTING LIMITS on inappropriate behavior
This method isn’t complicated, but it’s often the opposite of what you feel like doing when you are faced with a high conflict person. So practice helps. We at High Conflict Institute have used this method successfully in a wide range of workplace and legal disputes. What is so amazing is that this HCP problem is similar around the world and that this method generally works with all types of people. It even works with those who aren’t high-conflict people, so you don’t have to worry about identifying them. You can use the CARS. Method with anyone.
The CARS Method® is designed to help you organize your responses to reinforce their best behavior, to calm them down and to redirect their energies.
Connecting with an EAR Statement®
The first step or skill is to attempt to calm the HCP’s emotions by forming a brief positive connection with the person. Of course, the first thing that most people feel like doing when they’re blamed or attacked is to attack back. Instead, it is helpful to respond with a statement that shows empathy, attention, and/or respect – what we call an “EAR StatementSM,” such as the following:
“I can see how important this is to you. Don’t worry, I will pay attention to your concerns, so that I understand them as best as I can. I have a lot of respect for the efforts you have made to solve this problem.”
This can be very difficult to do at first. However, an EAR Statement usually calms down the high-conflict person right away, at least long enough to use their problem-solving skills for a while. This gives them the chance to work with you rather than against you for a few minutes to solve the problem. It soothes the high-conflict person’s unconscious defenses enough to calm their fear of you and allows them to see you as less of an enemy and more of an ally in solving an objective problem.
This is an example of one of the four steps that we teach in our seminars on Managing High Conflict People at Work. View all resources related to workplace conflict on our website here.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.