Business people working with someone who is clearly high conflict.

Working with a High Conflict Personality

Leadership Tips from the podcast.

As part of my new Leadership Is an Everyday Act series, I will be sharing tips, techniques, articles, podcasts, and other resources to support leaders on their growth journey. I believe that leadership is not simply a title, but a belief and value system.

This podcast is from The Reboot podcast series showcases the heart and soul, the wins and losses, the ups and downs of startup leadership. It is relevant for anyone on a leadership journey.

In this episode, Navigating High Conflict Personalities, Reboot’s Ali Schultz interviews Megan Hunter, Co-Founder of the High Conflict Institute, about how to work with people that demonstrate problematic high conflict personalities. I have also provided additional details from the founders of these strategies, The High Conflict Institute.

A few concepts from the interview:

High conflict personalities represent about 10 – 20% of the population, who have a different operating system than the rest. We don’t know the rules to their operating system. Once we do, we can have some success, and make accommodations in order to work with them. For leaders, this can help with daily interactions: teams, co-workers, partners, senior management, and clients. 

High conflict personalities often have poor interpersonal skills, which they may not be aware of. They take those poor skills into their relationships, workplace, neighborhood, businesses and cause a lot of havoc. People with high conflict personalities can have unmanaged emotions, can be blamers, can have extreme behaviors. 

Most of us have learned the theories about how teams form: forming, norming, storming and performing. High conflict personalities can get stuck at storming. This means that others either have to get skilled at dealing with them or take a backseat in the relationship.

High conflict personalities show clues if we pay attention. You ask a reasonable question about something, perhaps a work issue, and they blow up at you. This shocks you, and you wonder what just happened. So you keep asking questions and/or defending yourself and that doesn’t work. This is an example that our default operating system doesn’t work with this person.

They are often stuck in reactive brain, which prevents them from bridging over to problem solving brain. Their reactive brain causes threats, blame and aggressive displays of behavior. They don’t know a better way. We can get hooked into this drama and need to pay attention to our own emotions. We must adapt in the situation because they can’t. 

They need a lot of structure; they need people around them to set limits and have boundaries. However, these are the people we rarely set limits or boundaries with. 

Here are two approaches to use with high conflict personalities, discussed in the interview. Both are from the High Conflict Institute. See the links below to learn more.

EAR: Empathy, Attention, Respect. Typically used in verbal communications, in-person, phone, video. We start with EAR to calm the person’s reactivity – in the moment –  and help them move into a problem solving mode. It can be one or all three within a conversation. EAR was developed by the High Conflict Institute. 

  • Empathy: “I can understand how frustrating this can be. I can see how hard this has been on you”.
  • Attention: “I’ll pay attention. Tell me more.” “I want to understand.”
  • Respect: “That was a great presentation you gave.” “I respect the commitment you have for completing this project.”

BIFF: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Typically used in written communications.  Not every email needs a response, particularly a hostile email. Use discernment to decide what – if any – response will be useful. BIFF Response® is owned by the High Conflict Institute. 

  • Brief. Usually 2-4 sentences is enough. The more you write, the more material the other person can criticize.
  • Informative: Straight information, no opinions, defenses or arguments. The goal is to correct inaccurate statements.
  • Friendly: Have a friendly tone, so that it calms a conflict rather than generating more.
  • Firm: End the conversation or ask a simple yes/no question. Don’t make comments that leave an opening. 

Take a listen to the podcast in the link below and take a look at the supporting resources from High Conflict Institute. Need more help? Reach out to me so we can talk about it.

Resources: Navigating High Conflict Personalities
High Conflict Institute