In these times of being forced to stay at home, some people are going to discover that they’re living with a “high conflict” person or dealing with one online. That’s someone who is stuck in conflict; who can’t let things go; who has to have their way all the time. You know when you’re living with someone like that, but you probably didn’t understand why—or what to do about it.
High Conflict Personalities
I’ve been working with and studying high conflict people for over 20 years. I estimate that about 10% of adults tend to have a high conflict personality. They tend to overlap with personality disorders, which are about 15% of the general population according to the DSM-5 diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association.1 But many people with personality disorders do not have high conflict personalities, and many people who are high conflict do not have personality disorders. (Also, children are naturally this way, but most grow out of it by adulthood.)
Here are the four primary characteristics of high conflict personalities, which is not a diagnosis but a description of conflict behavior:
- Preoccupation with blaming others (their "targets of blame")
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Intense or unmanaged emotions
- Extreme behaviors (often what 90% of people would never do)
If you’re dealing with someone like this don't tell them that you think they are a high conflict person! That just makes it worse, because high conflict people (HCPs) are stuck in defensiveness already and they’ll never let you forget how you labeled them. Instead, just keep it to yourself and adapt how you deal with them. (If you see these four characteristics, you can often predict at least another 40 behaviors. For a list of those, see my book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life.)
It’s important to understand that you can’t change their personality. If that was going to happen, it would have already happened by now in most cases. Since HCPs are preoccupied with blaming others, they don’t reflect on themselves and therefore they don’t try to change anything about themselves. But you can still manage your relationship with them by changing the way you interact with them. Here are four tips. I call them “The 4 Forgetaboudits” with high conflict people:
1. Forget about trying to give them insight into themselves.
This won’t work (because they can’t self-reflect) and it will make your relationship worse. Any effort you make to try to “get them to see” their part in a problem or “understand what they are doing wrong” will just trigger more defensiveness, rather than insight. You probably discovered this already but couldn’t stop yourself. Well, just stop it now. If they are an HCP, they will blame you more, not less, for doing this.
2. Forget about the past; focus on your future choices.
HCPs are stuck in the past. You’ll notice that they are always talking about how you or other people have treated them in the past, and how you or others were wrong and how they were right. You can’t win such a discussion and by focusing on the past, the conflict will just escalate. Instead, it helps to get them focused on what to do now: what you can do (like take a break from the conversation), or what the other person can do (“You have a choice here: Try choice A or choice B, what do you think?”), or what you can do together (“Let's change the subject to tonight’s dinner. Any ideas?”).
3. Forget about emotional confrontations.
High conflict people get easily stuck in their emotions and have a harder time than most people in bringing themselves back down to ordinary discussions. So, avoid expressing anger at them as much as possible (no one’s perfect at this). Instead, focus back on your choices. Even try to avoid telling them they’re frustrating, bursting into tears in front of them, or other emotional confrontations. It’s better to just take a break if you feel tempted to do these things. And after your break, try to focus on the future rather than re-opening a discussion of the past.
4. Forget about telling them they have a high conflict personality.
As I said above, this doesn’t help. If they have a high conflict personality, they are already very defensive and will get even more defensive. If they don’t have a high conflict personality, they still won’t like being judged or labeled. Just think it to yourself and try to remember these four Forgetaboudits.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with someone with a high conflict personality or not — or even a child. These four Forgetaboudits will help you manage close quarters with anyone anywhere.
1. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013, 646.