Communicating with High Conflict People - From “Fuhgeddaboudit” to “What’s Your Proposal?”
© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
High Conflict People (HCPs) tend to have a pattern of self-defeating and upsetting behavior. Generally, this pattern includes:
A preoccupation with blaming others – their “targets of blame”
Extreme behaviors – that 90% of people would never do
All-or-nothing thinking – there’s only one solution in their minds
Unmanaged emotions – most, but not all, HCPs have this characteristic
These personality traits lead them to frequently get stuck in endless conflicts with people they are close to and with people in positions of authority. While they may look good and act reasonably much of the time, when they are in close relationships or under a lot of pressure they tend to over-react and demonstrate the above characteristics.
While it is tempting to point out what is wrong with their behavior, or that they are the cause of their own problems, this type of feedback tends to backfire with HCPs.
The intensely defensive behavior of HCPs tends to be driven by underlying fears, which they cannot see themselves – and which you should avoid pointing out to them. Some of their common fears are: being seen as inferior, feeling abandoned, being ignored, feeling dominated by others and fear of being betrayed by those close to them. They carry these fears within themselves, so that they are easily triggered by the threatening behavior of others or even by their own thoughts when others are doing nothing wrong.
With many HCPs, their pointless or self-defeating behavior is very obvious to others. For this reason, it is very tempting to want to point out to them what is “wrong” with them. However, this is not recommended. Instead, just “Fuhgeddaboudit!” Negative feedback - or any feedback about their past behavior – tends to reinforce their fears, rather than giving them insight. While this is one of the hardest things to learn and accept about high-conflict people, it is also one of the most important. If you can let yourself fuhgeddaboudit, you will avoid many pointless confrontations and set-backs.
When you feel like trying to “make him see” what he is doing to himself; or tempted to “make her understand” what is wrong with her own behavior; these would be good times to tell yourself: “Just Fuhgeddaboudit!” When at all possible, focus on the future and some behavior that you would like to see. There’s no real need to criticize past behavior in most cases; instead, focus on the behavior that you want to see in the future and suggest that to the person. Or, better yet, ask them what they propose.
What’s Your Proposal?
By offering or asking for a proposal to solve a problem, you are being respectful and open-minded – and encouraging the other person to think, rather than to simply react and get upset. If the other person makes a proposal or agrees to your proposal, there is a greater likelihood that they will abide by it. One characteristic of high-conflict people is that they want to do things their way, and will only accept decisions when they have participated in making the decision. Another aspect of proposals is that they imply more than one solution to a problem. When a proposal is made, it is understood by most people to be subject to revision by others after some discussion. Others can ask questions, which can lead to new ideas and new proposals, until an agreement is reached or a problem solved.
By focusing on the future rather than the past, people are more able to solve problems and don’t need to get defensive. If you think you might be dealing with someone who is a possible HCP, focusing on the future and avoiding feedback about the past will help you a lot. However, whether or not someone is truly a high-conflict person, you can use this approach with anyone.
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.