Dealing with High Conflict People (7 Tips)

In many areas of life today, there are “high-conflict people” who make your life difficult because they have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking (“my way is the only way”), unmanaged emotions (yelling, crying), extreme behaviors (that 90% of people would never do) and a preoccupation with blaming  others. Several things to keep in mind to deal with them, including neighbor disputes, are the following: First, things to remind yourself:

1)    IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! Their thinking, emotions and behavior are not caused by you, so you don’t need to blame yourself or defend yourself. While this is obvious most of the time, it’s a lot harder to remember when a neighbor is yelling at you, blaming you, challenging you, etc.

2)    YOU’RE NOT GOING TO CHANGE HIM OR HER! You may already know this, but in the heat of argument it’s tempting to try. Just forget-about-it! Save your energy for strategic responses and setting limits, not challenging them back.

3)    DON’T TRY TO MAKE LOGICAL SUGGESTIONS! An angry, upset, belligerent bully is operating most likely out of his or her defensive thinking, which focuses on survival, not logic. Since you’re not going to change him/her, use the following methods to “manage” him/her.

This is what I describe as the CARS Method:

4)    CONNECT with E.A.R. Statements. Unless it would be dangerous to do so, attempt to calm him or her with a statement that shows empathy, attention, and/or respect – what we call an “EAR Statement,” such as the following:

“I can see how important this is to you. Don’t worry, I will pay attention to your concerns, so that I understand them as best as I can. I have a lot of respect for the efforts you have made to solve this problem.” (But only say what you can honestly say.)

5)    ANALYZE Your Options. Get the other person to focus on solving a problem, by making a proposal or explaining the options available as you see them, such as the following:

6)    RESPOND to Hostile Communications or Misinformation. High-conflict people often put their hostile comments in writing, and email is one of the worst places for this. Yet you can respond in writing in a manner that does not make things worse and helps you feel good about yourself. These are BIFF Responses, which stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm.   

Just be Brief (3-4 sentences), Informative (just necessary information without opinions or advice), Friendly (thanks for your question, etc.) and Firm (set a deadline if you need a response or say that’s all you’ll say on this subject if the discussion needs to end).

We have a whole website dedicated to helping people write a BIFF Response. Check it out at www.BIFFResponse.com.

7)    SET LIMITS and Inform About Consequences. This is what to do instead of making suggestions or giving advice. Just say, “When you do _____, I’m going to do _____.” “You’re doing _____ again, so I will now need to call my lawyer.”etc. Don’t make it a discussion. Don’t try to convince him/her. Just matter-of-factly say what YOU are going to do, rather than what HE or SHE should do. “When you do this, I will do that.” And make sure you do what you say.

Lastly, CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. Unfortunately, a high-conflict neighbor may always be difficult. But you have already taken some steps to not engage in an angry battle and just matter-of-factly solve problems.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator. He is the President of High Conflict Institute, which provided training for professionals and others dealing with high-conflict situations. For more information on managing a potentially high-conflict person or situation, go to www.HighConflictInstitute.com. There are free articles, seminars, books and CDs and DVDs that can help.