How To Escalate Conflict Without Even Trying

Have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone who just can’t understand your point of view? Maybe you tried to convince someone what he did was wrong, and felt like if you explained it well enough, things would change. This won’t work if you are dealing with a High-Conflict Person (HCP). An HCP gets stuck in his Mistaken Assessment of Danger (see: MAD here). Because of these imagined feelings of being attacked, he’ll start his Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive (See: BAD here). The BAD behavior catches us by surprise because it’s an extreme reaction to what we thought was a rather small issue. You probably felt like you were being personally attacked and you responded with something like the above or tried to get the HCP to see the error of his thinking.

Don’t Make The Mistake Of Trying To Be Helpful

It’s normal not to want to see someone upset. It’s perfectly natural to want to defend yourself from an overblown reaction. We’ve all done it, and we probably walked away scratching our heads and wondered why it got so out of control. However, much of what we teach is to do something different this time – something that does not feel natural at all but works.

The first thing is to tell yourself, “It’s not about me.” Repeat it like a mantra. You have to remind yourself that the irate reaction you’re getting is the HCP’s problem, not yours. This helps you relax a tiny bit, and see things a little differently.

Next, keep this nugget in mind: “The issue is not the issue!” That sounds weird, but let’s say your argument went something like this:

  • MARY: Let’s paint the bathroom blue.
  • JOHN: I think green might look better.
  • MARY: Why do you always do that? It’s so argumentative!
  • JOHN: Do what?
  • MARY: You always say crap without thinking about how I’ll feel. You criticize everything I say. Why can’t you ever just have a reasonable discussion?
  • JOHN: Fine. Just paint it blue, then. It’s not a big deal.
  • MARY: THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!! You could have said that in the first place but you had to mock my color choice first.
  • JOHN: I’m sorry. Calm down. You said you liked green when you painted the kitchen. You shouldn’t get so upset about things like this. I don't always criticize you, either. If you could just listen to a simple suggestion, it would be easier on us.
  • MARY: What are you talking about? I don’t do that – YOU do that. It’s like you just have to put me down before you can even think about what I’m asking. You are such an insensitive $@!#. And let me tell you something else, remember that time when you…(and on and on).

The mistake John made is that he tried logic to convince her to stop her emotional reactions. He made behavioral suggestions, tried to explain his reasoning and told her to calm down. He even apologized (which just reinforced Mary’s idea that he did something wrong). All the while he was probably thinking, “Hey! She’s accusing me of doing all the things that SHE does!” The problem is that Mary is an HCP. Where a normal person might have said, “Let’s paint a little bit of each color to see what it looks like,” Mary is incapable of seeing his logic or taking suggestions (see FORGETABOUDIT here). She disregarded paint color altogether because the issue was not the issue. She’ll take all advice or suggestions as Negative Feedback (NF), and she’ll take it very personally. Commence escalation!

The Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking image
The Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking

The Circle of Frustration

At this point, the Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking is competed, and you’ll be off and running with the latest never-ending debate with this, well – jerk. MARY went from MAD to BAD in the blink of an eye. When John innocently gave her NF while trying to be helpful, the Cycle of High-Conflict thinking led Mary back to MAD and they could go in circles for hours unless John does something. What??? That doesn’t sound fair, I know. Mary started it, so why does John have to end it? It’s two-fold: (1) You have to remember that Mary cannot change her behavior; she’s an HCP so she’s acting out unconsciously based on what she feels rather than any logic. (2) Recognizing that he can’t simply ask for or expect Mary to change, it’s in John’s best interest to break the cycle so that HE can avoid the onslaught and enjoy a little peace.

Techniques You Can Use To Break the Cycle

Most of us are naturally inclined to try to calm someone so that neither one of us stay upset. John can still do that, but we suggest doing it differently than what you feel like doing. When you see the HCP going from MAD to BAD you can interrupt the cycle by replacing Negative Feedback (NF) with a little Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR). You can read more about EAR here or watch the video here, but in short, it’s:

  • Empathizing with the HCP for being upset even though you don’t understand why they are upset. John could simply say, “I can see this subject is upsetting for you.”
  • Paying attention to the HCP’s concern. You don’t have to agree with the concern, just acknowledge that they have one. You have to listen briefly, but at the first opportunity, John could have said, “So, you feel that my asking about green paint was insulting.”
  • Show respect for the concern. Before Mary launches into why it was insulting, John could say, “I appreciate how hard you’ve worked to make the house look nice. I’d like for us to make the bathroom look that good too.”

Cycle with EAR image

Note that John stayed away from responding to or defending himself from her emotional accusations. Remember, the paint color issue is not the issue; it was her feeling that she had been criticized. John’s new responses took all the wind out of her angry sails so that perhaps she could think about paint choices or stop being MAD at him. Also note that at the same time, John’s responses were BIFF - Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (See the BIFF Response article ,  watch the video or get the BIFF book).

This takes practice – LOTS of it, especially if you are trying to de-escalate problems with a person you can’t distance yourself from, like a coworker or family member. It’s not easy to fight your inclination to defend yourself (which only makes things worse) and to be attentive to someone that goes off on you. It does work, however, and if your goal is to end the conversation with a positive outcome for yourself, then we suggest you read more about it. You can find in-depth discussions and examples in the book “It’s all YOUR fault” and I’ll be writing more in the blog about BIFF responses, EAR statements and other tips to use with HCPs.

© 2014 High Conflict Institute