Recognizing High Conflict People
With Their Backs Against The Wall
Conflict seems to be at the center of some people's lives. Every challenge, every dispute and every argument becomes a fight to the death. They feel like their very existence is at stake.
These people are driven by deep, unacknowledged fears. Their whole lives are organized around these fears. This seems normal to them and believe that everyone else thinks the same way they do.
In this lens I will give the basic tools and resources to recognize, understand and deal with these high conflict people driven by fear.
Driven By Fear
High conflict people are driven by these four fears.
I want to start with a small disclaimer. I am not a therapist and I am unable and unwilling to diagnosis anyone, ever. Still, as a mediator helping to settle disputes I needed a better way to understand what was driving and escalating disputes that had at first seemed simple with clear paths to resolution.
If I was a therapist, I would turn to the DSM IV and discuss personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, narcissist personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. In fact, I have been helped a great deal by learning about these things.
In my practice and in my everyday life I needed a simpler and more situational approach. I had no time for a proper diagnosis. I needed a way through the next session. I was faced with a number of important questions. What is at the center of this dispute? Why is it continuing? and How can we deal with it?
What I found is that these people who drive and escalate disputes, in differing degrees, are driven by four basic fears.
The Fear of Being Ignored
Some people feel like they will simply disappear if they are not the center of attention. They won't matter anymore, but worse they won't even exist. For them this is not a metaphor or a figure of speech. It is really how they feel. It is a crisis of being and a matter of life and death. This drives their need for approval from others. It drives their constant need of attention.
So they divide themselves into "acceptable" and "unacceptable" parts. The parts people like and the parts they don't. In their desire to remain in the center of attention these people will make every effort to hide the flawed, unacceptable and imperfect parts of them.
The difficulty comes when these people are forced to confront, examine or deal with their "unacceptable parts". They don't like to do this because they feel like their very existence is being threatened.
The Fear of Being Belittled
The fear of being belittled, of being small, puts people in the place that they need to seem bigger and better than mere mortals. They have done more, done it better, done it with purer intentions than you. They need to be one up. They need to top you. They need to bring you down.
They are driven with the deep and compelling notion of being insufficient. That they don't or can't measure up. This is not the same as the common experience of feeling inferior that is often accompanied with poor self-esteem traits like constant apologies, avoidance, and low motivation.
In fact, these people may appear to be the very models of self-esteem and a portion of them may be very high achievers. But they find it impossible to acknowledge their flaws. To admit that they are wrong, responsible for a negative outcome, or are simply common and normal in their strengths and weaknesses is overwhelming to them.
The Fear of Being Abandoned
Being driven by the fear of being abandoned is like living life on a roller coaster. These people will be sweet, caring and attentive and in the next moment angry, wounded and even violent. Any little thing can signal to them that they are about to be left behind.
To be left behind, abandoned means, to them, that they will die. That is how it feels and they are desperate not to die. They will do anything to keep attached to you, even if it is a negative and destructive attachment like fighting. Letting go is out of the question.
Unfortunately, the very ways these people use to hold on to the relationship ensures that the other person will want to leave. So in the deepest and scariest part of their lives they have created a self-fulfilling prophesy. They have no other effective plan of action available to them because they are so drive by their fear.
The Fear of Being Dominated
The motto here may be something like, "I'm going to do to you, before you can do to me." The basic plan for those who fear being dominated is to dominate first. For them life is the survival of the fittest and there are no other rules. Nothing that works for them is out of bounds. And of course, they think that you are using the same approach. If you aren't using the "no holds bared" approach, they see you as hopelessly weak and foolish.
These people are not seeking a relationship from you, but see you as an object. You are something to use to get what they want. They are not capable of empathy and in the end you do not matter.
Since they fear being dominated they defend themselves by dominating you first. When it suits them they will lie, steal, cheat and physically assault to demonstrate their dominance. Other times they will be helpful, well mannered and charming. It depends upon what they want in the moment.
High conflict people are driven by deep, profound fears.
Bill Eddy on High Conflict Personalities - Bill Eddy is the leading authority on high conflict personalities in family law. If you are facing a divorce, child c
Patterns of Fear
Fear leaves it's own fingerprint. These are the patterns of behavior that will allow you to recognize high conflict people.
High conflict people regularly make particular types of choices. These are a few of the most identifiable trademarks. We will often find a person we know with an occasional lapse into these behaviors. That is to be expected from time to time. However, the more you see of these traits and the more often you see them, then the more likely you are dealing with a high conflict person.
When the "Issue" Isn't the Issue.
Bill Eddy makes it plain that when the dispute centers around an issue which is not central to the problem at hand you may well be dealing with a high conflict person. With high conflict people the dispute is not about the money, the children or whatever else you are fighting about. Fix this issue and the dispute will continue. The real issue is the internal emotional state of the high conflict person.
All or Nothing Thinking
This is a common distortion in our thinking and most people are prone to it from time to time. The high conflict person see the world in black and white terms and this plays out in a couple of ways.
First, high conflict people see the world in terms of winners and losers with nothing in between. Disputes are not readily settled and compromises worked out. For them, one person is right and the other is wrong, and by the way, it is really important that they are right.
Second, high conflict people see people as all good or all bad. In fact, it can get worse. A person who was once considered close, trusted, or a support, can later be completely demonized. No positive value remains. It becomes possible and acceptable for high conflict people to fabricate false claims against the once loved and trusted person.
Some high conflict people communicate in compelling and convincing terms that are persuasive to family members, managers, therapists, lawyers and judges. But when examined it is often found that the emotional content of the claims are more persuasive than true.
High conflict people blame others when there is a problem. The feeling that they might be partially responsible for the dispute is unacceptable. To preserve their "self" the high conflict person will blame the whole problem on someone else. Unfortunately this target is usually someone close like a spouse or other family member, pastor or manager at work.
Unable or Unwilling to Take Responsibility
High conflict people are often unable to take responsibility for even a small part of the dispute. To do so would activate their deepest fears and threaten their existence as they understand it.
Responding to Fear
Seeing their fear allows us to respond appropriately. We can act wisely on our own behalf while acting with compassion in our interactions with them. High conflict people are in a great deal of distress most of the time. They find it difficult to bring a difficult moment to a conclusion. Their emotional response doesn't move to closure. This leads them to act in some very hurtful and difficult ways. It is all that they know and it seems like their only option. They fell trapped.
We need ways to deal with high conflict people that will protect us from their inclination to act out. We need ways to keep a difficult situation from escalating.
We also need a way of dealing with these difficult people with compassion. Often they are close to us, in our families and after all is said and done, we love them. We don't want to hurt them or exploit them.
There are many things that we can do to help resolve disputes with high conflict people. These are some of the most important.
Calming and Soothing
Big emotions are part of the reality with high conflict people. Learning how to calm and soothe them is essential. They cannot function well, nor move forward when they are highly emotional. Also in this state they are likely to view even the smallest challenge as significant.
First be sure that you don't challenge them directly. If you must you can explain how you are feeling, but at first they will not be able to hear it. It is also possible that their capacity for empathy is limited.
A better approach is to say something like, "You may be right." This seems counter intuitive at first, but it is important to learn to say this with an authentic conviction. This phrase, said authentically almost entirely eliminates push back. It will take the wind out of their rant. There will be no one to fight against.
But how can I say this authentically? Well, first, they may be right, or at least partially right. Even if someone is emotionally out of control, they may be reporting accurately. Unless you were there, you don't know exactly what happened. Even if you were there, you still don't know all that happened. This is just the fact of being limited finite humans. So no matter how bizarre, unlikely or incredible their claims may be, just say, "You may be right", because, in some way they just might be.
Another way to calm and soothe high conflict people is to ask them to, "Tell me more about that." This also deflates the push to fight. It gives them a chance to be heard. Being heard, by the way, cannot be underestimated in its importance to high conflict people. They need to be heard and most crave it. Few have ever been listened to in their lives and can hardly get enough.
In neither example have we agreed that they are correct in their claims or demands, only that we are willing and able to incorporate their perspective. With high conflict people this process can take a long time. Longer than with other people. One attorney I know expects to get 5 minutes of work done for every hour they meet with high conflict clients. That is the pace that these clients need, because they need to protect and manage their fears along the way.
High conflict people expect to be treated differently than others. They will attempt to make greater demands on you and if you begin to make exceptions for them, they will ask for more. In the end they will turn on you because you have not and can not fulfill their deep needs. By maintaining an arm distance compassion, you will be able to be most helpful to the high conflict person.
We can test reality with high conflict people indirectly. It is important not to challenge them directly. With direct challenges high conflict people will go on the attack, shut down or go underground. This will escalate the conflict.
Instead of a direct attack on the credibility or honesty of a high conflict person, try a more generalized statement. Try something like this, "Sometimes when people get really angry at some one else they really want to make that person pay for what they have done. Do you know what I mean? Unfortunately, this often will backfire. In their effort to hurt or bury the other person, some people will exaggerate or invent facts or details or other information to make their case. Often this hurts because credibility is so important now. Can you see how this might work?"
This is a long way of asking,"Are you telling me the truth?" It is so important to do it in this manner if you are looking for resolution to the conflict. Direct confrontation will not be very effective.
In reality testing for high conflict people we are looking for two types of problems. The first is simple, intentional deception. High conflict people lie and they depend upon this to get what they need.
The second issue is cognitive distortion. High conflict people are engulfed in emotional reasoning, all or nothing thinking, personalization, exaggeration and minimizing. All of these confuse the situation and increase the conflict. The best option is to move slowly and to maintain a healthly skepticism.
With these approaches in hand it will be possible to slowly, step by step, move into problem solving. Remember these are deeply wounded and highly complex people. They are difficult and do create a lot of conflict in their wake. Still, they need to be treated with compassion and respect. They need to be approached in a way that eases their pain and fear while holding them accountable for their actions.
More on High Conflict People
High Conflict People in Church
Try this link if you have high conflict people in your church.
- Salt Creek Associates
This website and blog from Salt Creek Associates is designed for pastors and ministry leaders. It includes information on how to work with and minister to the high conflict people in your church.
Blogs About High Conflict People
- Salt Creek Coaching
This is my blog on how people can manage conflict. I look at the underlying contributors to conflict like stress, anger, anxiety, guilt and depression. Oh, and of course there is a lot of information about high conflict people.
If you have a story of a high conflict person in your life, drop us a line.