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.
High conflict personalities
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 stereotypes 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.
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