Saturday, November 16, 2013

High Conflict People and the Toxic Damage They Cause

Do the following statements sound like anyone who makes you cringe, at work, in your neighborhood, in your extended family?  If so, you are by no means alone.  Fortunately, there are resources available to address the damage such people do to those around them.  
  • "This is all your fault. None of it was my fault.”
  • "I disown you (again). You have been a terrible spouse/son/daughter/etc. How dare you contradict me.”
  • "Don't talk to those neighbors; they'll screw you like they screwed me."
  • "You never loaned me that money. It was a gift. Prove it.”
  • "Of course, my way is right.  You can't possibly succeed doing that. How stupid.” (No, I never thought of it ).

A recognized category of extremely difficult personalities, identified as "High Conflict People," is easily recognized by a combination of unattractive traits that include:
  • “My way or the highway” thinking
  • Emotional over-reactions (that can include yelling, throwing things, hitting, or over-the-top messages on emails, letters, answering machines, back stabbing, starting rumors)
  • Blaming others, particularly for their own problems, either defensively (“he's out to get me”) or offensively (“it is your fault now and always”)

If your business or home life has been ripped asunder by unpleasant people with such personality traits, you will be glad to learn that a number of books and articles outline how to deal with them, and in various contexts, such as business negotiations, employees/supervisors, divorce, and parenting. There is even a HighConflict Institute! The founder of that organization, Bill Eddy, was previously a therapist at a psychiatric hospital, and later a lawyer and mediator. What a great background for the topic! He has written books with such provocative titles as Its All Your Fault!12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything  and High Conflict People in Legal Disputes.

Another excellent resource is The No Asshole Rule:Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton. It is a very short book, which brilliantly quantifies all the costs to businesses that hire and retain such awful people.

These and other resources made several points which I found very useful.  I summarize several below, primarily from Mr. Eddy's writings, because everyone I have spoken to is able to identify several people like this who have been destructive at worst or exhausting and high maintenance, at best.

High conflict people are TOXIC, and their destructive behavior sooner or later results in the erosion of friendships, partnerships, employment, business deals, marriages, and parent/child relationships. In the meantime, they can destroy other people's reputations and livelihoods, undermine business productivity, morale, and profits, and, as one title above suggests, generate or extend frivolous law suits.

High-conflict people are difficult to interact with for the following reasons:  
1) They have difficulty feeling empathy for others, so they can't conceive of compromise. 
2) They have difficulty reflecting on their own behavior, especially as it contributes to their own problems, so they don't handle criticisms or alternative points of view well, nor are they likely to change, despite repeated negative feedback from others. 
3) They tend toward negative perceptions of the world and other people so they assume a defensive or offensive stance even when one isn't warranted or recognized by anyone else. 
4)  They tend to blame others, and harbor and manufacture grudges which reinforce their modus operandi. 
5)  They may try to enlist others (in a junior high school girls sort of way) to join their vendetta against someone else, for example, to get someone fired or socially marginalized, through rumor, innuendo, lies, or even actions they do themselves and then blame on the other party (the recent best selling novel, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn).

The reason that they over-react as they do, according to some authors, is based on fears (such as being ignored, criticized, or hurt), that others do not feel so acutely in reaction to similar triggers. Carolyn Baker deals with this in her blog and gives examples, such as preparing for death

Most of the sources I read indicate that if these people are adults, you probably cannot change their personalities, but you can and should protect yourself and others, one way or another, such as by leaving them, firing them, or setting boundaries of appropriate interaction (see below). My father wrote a business book years ago (The New Partnership, by Thomas Melohn) in which a whole chapter was devoted to “Firing the Sharks” - those people who continually undermine a company's morale, productivity, and reputation, even after being called on it by peers and supervisors. Think "toxic."

Certainly such people are easy to recognize in the act, but how do you avoid hiring, dating, or marrying them?  

Anyone can demonstrate good behavior for an interview or a few dates. So for goodness sakes, look for red flags.  Among these are: (a) a series of short stints at prior employers and people who seem to cycle through friends, spouses, or dates who never last very long – and guess whose fault that is. (b) anyone who specifically asks you to not talk to prior employers, clients, neighbors, or family members at all is worth closer scrutiny. Is he/she presenting a false front that will be decisively countered by such a background check? What is he or she hiding? Road rage may be another indicator.

Once you are stuck with such people, perhaps relatives, neighbors, or bosses/employees, how can you deal with them? How can you protect your own sanity and sense of purpose?

Bill Eddy suggests seven methods, with easy-to-remember acronyms of BIFF and EAR to guide your responsiveness. In general, EAR governs active listening and BIFF governs your focused responses.

E: empathy (“You really feel strongly about this, don't you?” “You must have felt awful.”)

A: attention (“I'll listen and pay attention.” “When did that last happen?” “What did you do?”)

R: respect (Offer some personal compliment, like “You have a great memory.” or “You certainly made your feelings well known.”)

Bill Eddy's observation is that by their horrible behavior, high conflict people have alienated so many people that they rarely get anyone's empathy, attention, and respect. And they crave it. These three behaviors on your part can calm them down from their defensive/offensive position so that your messaging has a better chance of being heard. You can also disrupt the long harangues by empathetic insertions. This is because, many times, the high conflict person is “on a roll,” repeating a story of victimization or blame that they have told (to you or to others) many times before. In other words, they are on “auto-pilot.” Your pleasant comments can derail and abbreviate the narrative. You can also use EAR comments to bring the conversation to a close (because to a high conflict person, the issue is NEVER closed). (“Thank you for telling me so clearly how you feel about this. It bears some thought. Given the time, though, let's wrap this up for now.”)

B: be brief (the longer you go on, the more fodder you give the other party for misuse or abuse).

I: be informative – (correct misinformation, focus on the issue: “We are talking about this one, specific topic. You volunteered on the 12th for the project; no one assigned you. You said on that date you'd have it ready today, and the client is scheduled to arrive at 3 pm to hear it.)

F: be friendly (not threatening, not defensive – don't ramp up the reaction).

F: be firm (Unless you want to continue the argument, bring it to a close) (“I have heard your views and have corrected some misunderstandings with facts and dates. Let's get back to work so we are ready for the meeting.”)

In conclusion, if you are beaten and bowed by someone extremely difficult, he or she may be a high conflict person. If so, that term and these resources may help you prepare for incoming shrapnel.

(a) You are not alone. These people have, do, and will blame lots of other people all the time, too, with whom they over-react and express all or nothing thinking (you are with me or against me). Many professional resources are available on-line pertinent to numerous situations.

(b) The person's reaction (call it juvenile or "flight or fight") is not your fault.

(c) The person won't change a long term pattern of toxic behavior, so you do need to protect yourself and your loved ones or employees/customers, for example, by cutting them out of your life or company. If stuck with them, try practicing listening and reacting behaviors that demonstrate appropriate conflict resolution. Be firm about setting limits on their abuse of you. By doing so, you'll protect your self-esteem, your reputation, and perhaps, even resolve a task at hand.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. At some point, we all end up in conflict with those close to us. Some will be gentle disagreements. Others will be tough as you described where there has to be a win-lose. I took a course in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and the skills I learned help me to this day as I deal with frustrated people off and on. My husband and I have a "fight fair" policy. No name calling. No putting down the other person or their position. No curse words. Time outs are great, but no abandonment implied. We don't have disagreements often but we decided to have rules of the road. It works great for us. Thanks, Laura