High Conflict People (HCP) are not just difficult people, they are the most difficult people. Perhaps you have a co-worker, a relative or a client who is very challenging to deal with and always seems to get into conflict with other people. They get angry over small issues which they never think are their fault, and if someone tries to help, the High Conflict Person (also HCP) still doesn’t seem to be able to stop, or gets angry at that person as well. They will very often complain about an issue or a person as being the cause of their problems, but the reality is that, for HCPs, it is their personality that is the issue. Despite how challenging HCPs can be, we can very often have effective working relationships with them, if we understand how their personality works and how best to manage them.
Four Characteristics of HCPs
- All-or-Nothing Thinking
HCPs usually want a solution to their problem, but rather than take the time to analyze all of the information or options, they very often make a quick decision, and then will not compromise or be flexible. If you try to offer another opinion or argue with them, you could soon end up being seen as an enemy, because HCPs see people through a black-and-white lens: “you are my friend or you are my foe.”
- Unmanaged Emotions (Sometimes)
When HCPs get into conflict, they are often very emotional. They can have dramatic mood swings over small issues in a matter of seconds, or become very angry if they feel disrespected or if they think that someone is manipulating them. They will become very upset, yell, use personal attacks about someone’s ethics or competence, or trash someone on social media (exaggerating or manufacturing events to make the story sound better). On the other hand, there are some HCPs who don’t lose control of their emotions, and while they are being manipulative, can seem very calm and collected. Other people can be shocked or scared of this behaviour and become overwhelmed emotionally when trying to respond or simply get away from the HCP. For this reason, we need to be careful to not make a judgment too quickly about who we think might be the problem.
- Extreme Behaviours
HCPs very often behave in extreme ways, because they lose control of their emotions or they have an intense drive to control or dominate those who are close to them. This behaviour can include spreading rumours, making hurtful comments, publicly accusing someone of lying, stalking someone or refusing to have any contact, or acting dangerously or self-destructively. HCPs can also respond out of proportion to what you and I might see as a small or even irrelevant event, such as someone not returning a phone call on time, being late for meeting, or disagreeing with the HCP.
- Blaming Others
HCPs stand out because they focus on blaming others – especially those closest to them or in authority positions over them. This is because HCPs look outward when they are in distress and think that they will feel better if they can remove the “target of blame.” Also, they have a difficult time reflecting on their behaviour and how they might be contributing to the problem, so they see themselves as innocent victims.
Four Tips for Dealing with High Conflict People
The more that we understand the predictable behaviour patterns of HCPs, the more we can learn how to effectively respond to them. If you think that someone is an HCP, focus on ways you can change your behaviour versus changing theirs. The more you focus on maintaining a friendly, arms-length relationship with an HCP, the better your outcomes will be in dealing with them.
- Lower Your Expectations
A key tip starts with our own reaction to the HCP. We need to lower our expectation that we can change an HCP by getting mad at them, by being very sensitive, or by trying to rescue them. HCPs are in conflict with people and organizations all the time; it is their personality that gets them into these situations, and life-long personality patterns do not change (except through a therapeutic program of behavioural change). We need to remind ourselves that we are responsible for our professional standard of care, but we are not responsible for what an HCP thinks and what choices they make.
Connect with the person using empathy, attention and/or respect (unless it is not safe, then you just need to stay away from the person). Say something friendly from time to time, even though you would prefer not to. Remember, HCPs put people into two categories: “friends” or “foes.” Focus on maintaining a professional, arm’s-length relationship in which you are as relaxed and respectful as possible.
- Focus on the Future
HCPs react very strongly to negative feedback, which is about the person, about the past, and negative in tone. The “past is pain” for HCPs, so we want to stay focused on the future as much as possible when dealing with them. We can do this by providing information to help them make better decisions in the future. For example, if we have to talk to the HCP about inappropriate behaviour at work, focus on the behaviour you want from them going forward, rather than what they did wrong. If you are worried that they will repeat the inappropriate behaviour, predict consequences while demonstrating concern for their well-being.
- Set Limits
How do we get HCPs to stop acting out in extreme ways, or simply get them to treat us with respect if we have a disagreement? The main thing to realize is that we cannot control what an HCP does; only they can. We need to focus on giving them information to assist them in making better choices, while maintaining our relationship. We should avoid direct personal confrontation, which will just turn into a power struggle. Instead, indirectly confront the person by referring to rules or policies that are external to your relationship with them, such as “I wish I could help you, we have a policy that says … ”
When dealing with an HCP, focus on managing your relationship with them, primarily by managing your own expectations, anxiety and reactions, while at the same time recognizing that you cannot change an HCPs personality or make them do what you want. You can very often work effectively with an HCP if you try to connect with them, while providing information to help them make better choices.
Michael Lomax is a mediator, lawyer and conflict resolution trainer in Victoria, B.C. and is an Associate Speaker/Trainer with High Conflict Institute (HCI). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. HCI provides training, consultations, books, CDs and DVDs about High Conflict People to individuals and professionals dealing with legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. For more information about HCI, visit www.highconflictinstitute.com