People occasionally ask me about coworkers or family members who don’t respond to the usually effective tools and techniques of promoting clear communication for dealing with a conflict situation. There are some people who always seem to be in the middle of big, dramatic disagreements, and are resistant to resolving them.
In the world of conflict studies, people with these tendencies are referred to as “high conflict people”. They focus on blaming others for everything, take no personal responsibility for their role in conflicts, think in all-or-nothing terms, and have over-the-top emotions and emotional behavior. For example, a high conflict coworker would consider it acceptable behavior to go stomping out of a meeting because of a perceived slight by someone, yelling that the whole team is against them.
True high conflict people generally have underlying psychological disorders that are beyond our untrained ability to chart and change. But the point is not to make a diagnosis. We just want to recognize characteristics enough to deal with these dramatic personalities and avoid escalating the situation. Fortunately, there are some guidelines for what we can do, and not do.
When interacting with someone whose emotional behavior seems way out of line with the situation, the single most important thing to remember is to manage your own emotions. High conflict personalities live in a world of intense, easily escalated emotions over which they feel little control. Anger, in particular, is a common emotion. Emotions and conflict are contagious. Our natural response is to get angry and become embroiled in defending ourselves and attacking or belittling the other person. Unfortunately, that is a certain way for the interaction to spiral out of control.
So, do not argue with the person. Instead, take a deep breath (or several). Acknowledge your emotions and allow yourself to choose not to be taken over by your feelings. Keep calm – peacefulness can also be contagious.
Once you’ve found some semblance of calm in yourself, you can engage the highly emotional person in a specific way. Bill Eddy, a therapist, attorney, and researcher in high conflict behavior uses the acronym EAR to represent the components to remember: Empathy, Attention, & Respect. Let the person know that you can relate to the pain they’re experiencing – “Wow, I can see that you’re really upset.” Express your willingness to listen to them – “Tell me what’s going on” – and then listen. Find something about them you can respect and share it with them – “I respect the effort that you’ve made on this project.”
Taking these steps will generally calm the highly emotional person enough to either try some problem-solving or allow you to leave without bad feelings. Granted, these three things are the last things we feel like giving someone who’s ranting near or at us. It takes practice and a willingness to override our knee-jerk reactions, but it works. Remember that empathizing, listening, and showing respect do not mean you agree with the person or condone their behavior.
Avoid getting hooked into rescuing them, too. High conflict people like to have others solve their problems, so they can blame others if things go wrong, which they eventually will. Be careful to set clear boundaries with them. They can be exhausting to be around and you’ll generally want to minimize contact. Of course, if you think there is any danger of imminent physical harm, just get out of the situation immediately.
We don’t often find ourselves having to interact with high conflict personalities, but when we do, it’s important to know that getting riled ourselves will be counterproductive. Embodying calm, however, at least on the outside, can de-escalate the high emotions.