Tips to Manage High Conflict People

Last month I wrote about dealing with what is termed ‘high conflict’ behaviours and outlined some of the theory that might underpin such behaviour. So here are some concrete approaches to managing such situations.

1. Don’t take the ‘bait: The number one ‘rule’ as it were in dealing with someone who is being perhaps rude, unpleasant or telling you in an unconstructive way that you are the cause of the problem, is to resist the temptation to argue back to defend yourself against the points they are making. This is of course easier said than done. When we are being ‘attacked’, we are of course programmed to ‘defend’. That’s why Robert Bacall’s analogy which likens this behaviour to a piece of bait being dangled, and which if we ‘bite’, we are drawn into equally unconstructive arguing back, is very helpful. So think of their outburst as a red herring that you are not going to be fooled by.

2. Go for an E.A.R.: Think to yourself – when you are angry with someone, what do you need most that might help you get a bit calmer? Most people need acknowledgement, someone to listen to them, to feel understood, to feel heard. An upset and angry person cannot problem solve. So the first thing required is de-escalation. One approach to this is by using what Bill Eddy terms an ‘E.A.R. Statement’. E.A.R. stands for empathy, attention and respect, so it’s about saying something that conveys that you are attempting in some way to empathise or understand that they are upset and that you are respectful in your words or how you convey it. It’s not about agreeing with the person ‘yes I see you are right about this’ rather something like ‘I can understand that you are annoyed and you feel it has been very frustrating for you’. So you are acknowledging but not agreeing with them.

3. Get clear in your mind what your intentions are: to get the situation sorted. If you are motivated to try and ‘teach them a lesson’ or get your own back then you are less likely to get the problem they have solved and much more likely to cause an escalation. Helping people realise they are in the wrong is a difficult task even when they are calm and somewhat receptive to hearing this, so don’t your time trying to do it with someone who is highly charged. Then use active listening and questioning skills to help you get clear on what it is their key needs and interests are beneath all their blaming and positional statements.

4. Respond with a B.I.F.F.: Another of Bill Eddy’s achronisms and sounds just like what you might feel like giving someone who’s on the attack! Well it stands for a Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm response. The essential message is not to get drawn into long argumentative and explanatory responses, rather you ensure you convey clearly, concisely but in neutral language your viewpoint or the information you need to convey.

6. Move them out of the ’emotional’ part of the brain: High Conflict People reside a huge amount of the time in this part of their minds. They are on high alert monitoring the environment for anything that might threaten their needs or sense of themselves. Strategic use of ‘logic’ questions can help to move them into the thinking or rational part of the brain. Such questions can range from ‘what time did x happen’ or ‘what’s your account number’ to ‘what three things do you need from this’ or ‘what’s your suggestion on how we can sort this out’ – all depending on the context of course.

5. Convey your willingness to help and a sense that you are being supportive by offering if you can a choice between a couple of options. Not only are you demonstrating co-operativeness, you are also getting them into the rational task of thinking and having to evaluate choices.

6. Set limits: Where necessary, set limits on the behaviour but try to do this in a matter of fact way rather than being either threatening or superior about it. So the tone of this message is critical. The same words ‘I want to help you sort it but I need you to speak in a calmer tone of voice’ can be very provocative if delivered with a wagging finger compared to a neutral, friendly tone.

So let’s take an example. Peter is a colleague who has a tendency to be very argumentative and challenging about everything and seem to have limited ability to discuss something in a reasonable way. You were meant to pass on an email last week but forgot. Peter comes bursting into your office, looking very cross and speaking in a raised tone about this. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t send that email – you are always forgetting things and it makes me look terrible now in front of the customers. This is a serious error and it’s all your fault. You are completely inefficient …etc etc.’

Here’s an example of how you might implement the tips above:
You initially give eye contact, listening, remaining calm and silent for a few sentences. Then you could try “I can see this has caused a huge upset…I see you feel you have been put in a very difficult position with the customer…Can I just check to get clear on what exactly has happened…an email came that I was meant to pass on…?” Peter might now start up again saying how he is always having to deal with these situations because you never send on emails on time etc. Here you would try a little BIFF.: “Just to clarify Peter, this is the first time I haven’t passed on an email. I understand it is frustrating for you with the customer and I’m happy to look at getting it resolved as soon as possible” (Little aside: Sybil from Fawlty Towers, dealing with her beloved Basil comes to mind here but you need to drop her superior tone please!)
In terms of choices you might say “In order to sort it out, the customer needs to be contacted and the matter remedied. If you wish, I am happy to contact them and explain the mix-up or would you prefer to do this?”

That’s just one example, but of course it all depends on the person and the context. Try it and let me know how you get on or what other approaches have worked for you.

Do You Know a High Conflict Person?

One of the challenges I came up against early on in my mediation career is how best to work with and support others in dealing with, a situation where a person didn’t seem able to be reasonable or engage in collaborative behaviours. Rather there seemed to be constant defensiveness and an unwillingness to accept some level of responsiblity for their contribution to a situation. In fact, they excelled at making the other person feel they were at fault.

My own personal experience of a couple of these situations led me to the work of Bill Eddy who has coined the phrase HCP – High Conflict Personalities as a way of characterising people who display these patterns of behaviour. While I’m averse to defining people by labels and sterotypes and a firm believer that we all engage in unco-operative behaviours at times, his approach has two very useful aspects. First of all he gives a context for this behaviour – that it’s a function of the person themselves rather than the issue or the other party in the situation. Secondly, he outlines some very useful strategies for dealing with it. But simply realising that it’s them not you and understanding why is very helpful for someone on the receiving end of such behaviours to depersonalise it.

A useful model for helping to understand people’s unconstructive behaviours in conflict is is that they arise because the amydala, the part of the brain that is wired to detect and protect us from threat and harm is activated. Our drive for survival leads us to engage in ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ reactions, which in a case of real danger is appropriate. However, according to Eddy, in his book ‘It’s not your fault’, HCP’s have what he terms a Mistaken Assessment of Danger – M.A.D. – easy to remember that one! So in essence, they interpret an unwarranted threat to their identity where there might merely be a difference of opinion or someone expressing another point of view.

This idea of a compelling drive to defend and protect oneself by any means is also reflected in the theory that Laura Crawshaw (a.k.a. The Boss Whisperer!) in her book ‘Taming the Abrasive Manager’. Her take on the clients she works with is that they are motivated by an intense need to ensure they ‘survive’ in terms of their reputation and will use any means to secure this.

Eddy goes on to see parallels with traits of personality disorders in these kinds of behavioural patterns. He cites four sub-conscious fears that underpin these behaviours: fear of abandonnment, fear of being ignored, fear of being dominated, fear of being inferior.

So HCP’s are in amygdala overdrive most of the time, misreading signals and reacting to this. Think of the amydala as a smoke alarm, it’s not meant to go off and cause an immediate response unless there is a fire but if it isn’t working properly, it can start to beep at the slightest air particles. This dominance of the amydala over the thinking pre-frontal cortex part of the brain also makes for errors in how they process events leading to ‘all or nothing’ or ‘black/white’ thinking, difficulty in self-reflecting and therefore in accepting any responsiblity for the situation .

I am not trying to imply that everyone who gets angry or is unreasonable has a personality disorder. I also think that all of us have times when our amydala dominates and we have high conflict behaviours. However, I think this framework of looking at how errors in processing of events is contributing to the behaviour helps us to view it more objectively rather than getting triggered by it and either feeling we are in the wrong or reacting unconstructively ourselves.