High Conflict People and Workplace Violence

© 2010 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Now we have another workplace shooting incident to analyze. This one apparently by a female faculty member at the University of Alabama. The early news reports indicate that she was denied tenure and wasn’t as good as she thought. These comments echoed the thinking of a medical student who I had just read about the day before – he didn’t shoot anyone, but appealed his expulsion to the Supreme Court, at an extraordinary cost to all involved. It’s costly to the educational institution, and sometimes dangerous, to be around a high-conflict person when they don’t get what they want – even if they’re otherwise brilliant. Being a high-conflict person has nothing to do with intelligence.

But there are some warning signs! High conflict people may be 10-20% of our society, and of most modern industrial societies. However, most don’t kill anyone. Predicting violence is still not possible, but certain ways of “high-conflict” thinking should raise concern. These ways of thinking often attract people to positions of high authority and respect – which universities provide – yet their personalities cannot manage the ordinary bumps and rejections along the way.

1. They feel extremely entitled – they believe they deserve more than almost anyone else.

2. They are unrealistic in their self-assessments –they believe they are better than anyone else.

3. They tend toward all-or-nothing thinking – they interpret ordinary events as indicating extreme success or extreme failure.

4. They can’t manage their emotions – their upset feelings often overrule their logical thinking.

5. They are preoccupied with blaming others – for problems they clearly caused themselves.

6. They lack self-awareness – they can’t see the impact they have on others and don’t feel empathy.

7. They can’t take negative feedback, even if it would help them – and they react sometimes violently.

The above are long-term personality patterns for high-conflict people (HCPs). They are often the result of temperament and life experience. Today, we see two general types of HCPs:

The abused: These HCPs grew up with abuse and learned that their actions don’t affect the consequences – when they were bad or good, they still got hit.

The entitled: These HCPs grew up with few limits or negative consequences – whether they were good or bad, they still got what they wanted.

In both cases, they don’t connect their actions to the consequences very well. Therefore, when things go badly, they often over-react and create more problems for themselves – which they blame on others, and attack those they blame.

They are also heavily influenced by what they see in terms of bad behavior around them. So, watching all the images of this shooting will increase the likelihood of another shooting, and another, and another. As a society, we have to learn that violence is contagious, especially when HCPs visually observe it. If we want to decrease such violence, we need to convince the news media that it should only be shown as text, and should not be allowed to lead on any news program. Of course, some of today’s media decision-makers may have some of the characteristics of high-conflict people. So they may lack awareness of the role they play in escalating the problem, they may lack the empathy to use self-restraint, may believe they are entitled to do whatever they want, and may enjoy the money the next tragedy brings in.

But the rest of us also watch the news and buy the products. How many more of these incidents do we need, before we become aware as a nation that our high-paying voyeurism is part of the problem?

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 personalitiesand high-conflict disputes with the most difficult people.