3 Tips to Help Spot a High Conflict Person
©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Did the shooter in Las Vegas have a high conflict personality? Does the President have a high conflict personality? What about all the people recently accused of sexual misconduct? How do you tell who these people are before you become entangled with them? What do you do if you already are entangled? There are a lot of questions. It’s time we started talking about the predictable patterns of high conflict personalities, how to identify them and, most importantly, how to deal with them effectively. Individually, without this knowledge, many people make things worse by how they react to a high-conflict person. Collectively, our current Culture of Blame is escalating high-conflict behavior rather than managing it. As a society, it’s time to develop awareness of high conflict personalities.
This is a new blog series about five types of high conflict people (HCPs) and what you need to know to protect yourself and manage (or avoid) relationships with them at home, at work, in your neighborhood or anywhere. This first blog talks about the basic, predictable and troublesome pattern of high conflict personalities.
When I was trained as a clinical social worker in the 1980’s, I worked in psychiatric hospitals and learned about personality disorders—people with social impairment, lack of self-reflection and lack of change. No matter how hard I worked to help these patients plan for discharge, save their marriage, their job, or their apartment, there would always be another crisis created for me to manage.
When I became a lawyer in the 1990’s, I thought I was making a career change, but I quickly realized that many of the people in legal disputes also had personality disorders or traits—but they were undiagnosed and slightly different.
Here’s what I saw: In my court cases I was seeing personality-disordered people who had a Target of Blame: someone they focused all of their anger onto, all of the responsibility for their problems, all of their energy. Their life purpose became controlling, eliminating or destroying that other person. Yet many of their targets were innocent of any wrong-doing, such as victims of domestic violence, neighbors who were just trying to get along, co-workers who were bullied, or strangers who were targeted simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another part of their pattern was the constant recruitment of Negative Advocates: people who they would persuade to help them in attacking their Targets of Blame. People would become emotionally hooked into the dispute, but uninformed about what was really going on. These Negative Advocates were often family members, but sometimes friends, co-workers and even their professionals. Yet, surprisingly, the HCPs frequently turned on their Negative Advocates, who became their next Targets of Blame.
Lastly, these HCPs were Persuasive Blamers. They often got many professionals and the court to agree with them and find fault with their Targets of Blame, rather than holding the HCPs responsible. They were getting these cases backward.
While I tried to explain to lawyers, judges, and mediators what was happening in these cases, it was too complicated to explain in a 10-minute discussion or 20-minute court hearing. So I started writing and teaching legal and workplace professionals about these high-conflict personalities, their Negative Advocates and their Targets of Blame. This has become the focus of my work for the past 15 years. Now we’re seeing the same patterns in community violence and world politics.
The DSM-5 suggests that about 15 percent of the adult U.S. population have a personality disorder and I estimate that about 10 percent have a high-conflict personality. These are huge numbers which are hardly talked about, yet they're similar to the percent with substance abuse disorders.
It’s important to know that not all HCPs have personality disorders and not all people with personality disorders are HCPs. But there is a lot of overlap and this has been helpful in developing methods of dealing with high-conflict people. We need to have compassion because no one seeks to have a high-conflict personality. But we also need to set limits.
So here are 3 key tips for spotting a potential HCP:
Look for the pattern - the four primary characteristics of a high conflict person:
1. Lots of all-or-nothing thinking 2. Unmanaged emotions 3. Extreme behavior or threats 4. A preoccupation with blaming others
If you recognize this pattern, you can generally predict at least forty other behaviors. For example, you can predict that they will not reflect on their own behavior or change their own behavior—no matter how much negative feedback they get from others, which just builds their resistance and leads to more extreme behavior.
2. Don’t try to change the person: If you see this pattern, don’t try to change the person. Change how you respond to the person.
3. Don’t label people as HCPs: Don’t tell someone you think they have a high conflict personality and don't label anyone publicly. Just be aware of the possibility that someone has a high conflict personality and adapt your approach as I will describe in this series.
When a high conflict person has one of five common personality disorders—borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, antisocial, or histrionic—they can lash out in risky extremes of emotion and aggression. And once an HCP decides to target you, they’re hard to shake.
But there are ways to protect yourself.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.