De-escalation techniques: Addressing high-conflict personalities (part 1)

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Have you ever met someone who seemed to introduce conflict to every interaction, was impossible to please and seemed immune to rational thought?

Chances are that you have come into contact with a range of such people–including clients, staff members, family or personal relationships–who have become increasingly adversarial, demanding or otherwise difficult to deal with during the course of your relationship.

Common types challenging behaviour

You know them when you meet them. Perhaps there is a client who insists on “special treatment” and feels entitled to extra favours including your undivided attention at any time of the day, or someone who wasn’t happy with the work you did for them which they took as justification for refusing to pay their outstanding bill. You may have to regularly deal with a colleague or family member who keeps creating unnecessary drama and high-intensity situations, or a disgruntled previous employee who has tried to damage your reputation by leaving demeaning comments all over social media.

Bill Eddy is an international expert for dealing with high-conflict personalities (HCPs), and he has plenty of useful, practical advice on how to successfully manage your relationships with them while protecting your own health and wellbeing. Given that Eddy has plenty of experience as a family lawyer and mediator, coupled with his previous experience as a social worker, his advice is particularly helpful and relevant for solicitors. As an author of several books1 and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute, Eddy has become an international expert in this area.

So, how can you spot HCPs, and how should you best respond to their irrational demands and often confrontational behaviour? The next two articles will cover some of Eddy’s tips and suggestions that will help you prevent escalation and protect your practice as well as your wellbeing.

What are high-conflict personalities (HCPs)?

HCPs display four main characteristics:

  1. They are pre-occupied with blaming others and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.
  2. They engage in black and white thinking. You may be able to spot this in their language, for example, the tendency to use absolute terms such as “always/never”, “best/worst”, “everything/nothing”, or in their descriptions of other people or situations as either all good or all bad, with no grey areas in between.
  3. They have difficulty managing their emotions, which often results in intense and often challenging behaviour, for example, yelling, storming out of meetings, frequent crying.  
  4. They engage in extreme behaviours–things which the vast majority of people would never do, for example, spreading vicious rumours, stealing from people or organisations because they think they are entitled to, purposefully sabotaging work projects, or repeatedly and knowingly misrepresenting the facts. While they may excuse their behaviour afterwards by saying they were extremely stressed, tired or unwell at the time, these are still behaviours that most people would never choose to take part in – even when they are tired, stressed or unwell. 

Because HCPs often lack the necessary self-awareness and insight into their own thoughts and emotions, they tend to remain stuck in a repeated behaviour pattern of over-reaction and negativity, which makes it hard for them to change. Pointing this out to them, however, will most likely lead to defensiveness and an increase in antagonistic behaviour directed at you, so this is not a recommended strategy. But this doesn’t mean you can’t successfully deal with HCPs!

Responding to HCP: The BIFF method

HCPs are likely to be the source behind lengthy and angry emails, hostile texts and nasty comments on social media – especially if these are not one-off occurrences, but what seems to be the preferred type of communication from a particular person. To help you deal with these unpleasant accusations and respond to them constructively, Eddy recommends the BIFF response method. It suggest you remain brief, informative, friendly and firm – even if you are tempted to explain yourself, find logical counter-arguments to their unfounded allegations, or air your own frustrations by getting back at them on the same level. These type of responses, however, will only add more fuel to their fire.

  • Brief
    Less is more. Keep your response short and to the point, even when the comment you are responding to goes on for many paragraphs or pages. The more detail you add-in, the more opportunity you provide them with for further attacks.
  • Informative
    Stick to the facts and give relevant and accurate information, but try to avoid going into emotions or personal remarks about the other person. It also makes no sense to defend yourself when the other person is determined to be hostile. It’s not really about you, but a reflection of their inability to regulate their emotions and responses.
  • Friendly
    While this may seem counter-intuitive at first (understandably so when you feel under attack), the key is to role model the kind of behaviour you would like to see in the other person and to refuse to interact with the hostilities. Also, keep in mind that emotions are contagious. Protect yourself against their negativity and destructiveness, and try to spread positive behaviour which may help to calm them down. To demonstrate your courteous manner, you may want to start your response with a friendly greeting, e.g. thanking them for email and sharing their views, and closing off by wishing them a nice weekend, good luck with their endeavours, or anything else that is relevant in the situation. Just make sure it sounds genuine so it won’t be perceived as sarcasm or mocking them. 
  • Firm
    Firm communication isn’t about being harsh, but being assertive (confident and direct, but also respectful of the other person). The goal is to end this conversation, rather than feeding the attacks or engaging with unsubstantiated accusations. Avoid anything that opens the door to more hostile comments. If you need a response from the other person, be specific and narrow in your questions, for example, ask them for a “yes” or “no” response by a particular date.  

For more practical examples of how a BIFF response can look like in different contexts, have a look at this article by Bill Eddy.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

1 Eddy’s books include colourful titles such as 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other High-Conflict Personalities (2018), High Conflict People in Legal Disputes (2016), It’s All Your Fault!: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (2012), BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns (2011), and  Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (2011).

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