High Conflict Personality

High Conflict Personality

What is a high-conflict personality? If you have ever been in a conflict with a person who seems keener on continuing and escalating the conflict than resolving it, you may be dealing with one. High-conflict personalities are not the easiest to have conversations with, especially if you need to resolve the conflict.  However, high-conflict personalities are often the result of a personality disorder, and there are ways to work with or around to achieve a resolution that all the parties will be happy with.  Understanding what makes a high-conflict personality, what it is caused by, and how to work with these personalities in professional or personal situations will help make conflict resolution the norm in dealing with unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. 

High Conflict Personality: 

Before we discuss how to collaborate with high-conflict people, it is important to understand what high conflict personality is and how it affects the people who are dealing with the results.  A high-conflict personality theory describes a person that will increase or prolong conflict instead of seeking to resolve it.  A common way that high-conflict people prolong conflict is by deflecting and distracting during the conflict and expanding the issues. They will pick a person, the target of blame, and attack or injure them It is often a coping mechanism leftover from trauma, as will be discussed later.  However, no matter what the cause, dealing with a high-conflict personality is often very difficult.  

Several behaviors are at the center of high-conflict personalities.  Many high-conflict people will exhibit behavior that follows these patterns.  The markers of high conflict behavior are: 

  • Shifting Blame: People with a personality disorder will shift the blame for their own behavior and various wrongdoings on other people, often blaming the entire conflict on the actions of others and refusing to acknowledge their role.  The person that receives the blame is known as the target of blame. These people will be very resistant to accepting blame. 
  • Large Emotion: High-conflict people will often exhibit emotions on a large scale, reacting disproportionately to the situation at hand.  Emotions will often come out in ways that will exacerbate the conflict, such as anger, fear, or yelling, especially when their ideas are challenged.  
  • No Compromise: One of the key practices for conflict resolution is the opportunity to discuss the issues and work together to compromise or cooperate and develop a solution that works for everyone.  High-conflict people often view the situation as an “all-or-nothing thinking” situation and will not allow anyone else to have a say. They are not likely to see the problem or solution from anyone else’s point of view and will not listen to what is being discussed.  
  • Aggressive Behavior: The final common behavior of high-conflict personalities is the tendency to engage in aggressive or extreme behavior.  This can be yelling, pushing, shoving, spreading rumors, and other physical and psychological examples.  

While these behaviors are common among all high-conflict personalities, there are also five separate types of people that are important to understand.  These are typically tied to the various types of personality disorders that a  person may have.  These types are: 

  • Borderline: Borderline high-conflict people are people whose personalities are characterized by the way in which they cling to and are preoccupied with their close friends, family, or acquaintances.  They will experience large and sudden mood swings and will often react to situations with anger or extreme emotion.  These close relationships will often feel protected until the blame shifts to them, often for the trauma that caused the disorder.  
  • Narcissistic: Narcissistic high conflict people shift the blame to the people around them, consistently living in an oxymoron of both berating and shaming the target of the blame and needing their admiration and affection.  This type will use insults and degrading comments to try and will claim that they are justified because of the way that others that them.  They will use many tactics to gain power.
  • Histrionic: A histrionic high conflict person is characterized most strongly by the emotion and drama that they use to manipulate the situations and cast the blame elsewhere.  They see relationships as healthier than they are and are often hurt by the way that people categorize them, causing them to publicly accuse and humiliate the people who exclude them.  
  • Antisocial: Antisocial high-conflict people are often the ones that are labeled as sociopaths or psychopaths, meaning that they have no conscience.  Their charm quickly becomes deceptive, using cruelty to achieve their goal.  Targets are often those who stand in their way.  
  • Paranoid: Paranoid high conflict people are constantly scared that the people around them are conspiring to hurt them, whether it be family or coworkers.  They are suspicious of everyone and carry grudges until the precise moment they can take it out on their target.  They feel easily threatened and that they need to protect what they have. 

While each type of high-conflict personality has its motivations and behaviors, the common theme is that high-conflict people will often find a blame target, often someone close to them, and create or escalate a conflict with that person.  This can make life with and around high-conflict people difficult.  The rest of this article will examine various areas of personality to determine how people around high conflict personalities may react.  

Causes of High Conflict Personality: 

One aspect of high-conflict people that may help people understand and approach high-conflict people differently is the common hypothesized cause of the personality: abuse or neglect early in life.  High conflict personality, like many psychological disorders, has not been linked to direct causes.  However, it is believed that abuse and neglect and the way that a person is treated early in their life may cause them to form insecure or disrupted attachments in childhood.  A person may be able to manage it in stable and supportive environments, but stressful situations often trigger an increase in behaviors and can cause the conflict to escalate.  So while the disorder may be caused by attachment styles early in life, it is in the high-conflict moments of life where the disorder thrives and grows.  Understanding that stress and trauma are common contributing factors may help a person deal with a high-conflict person with relative ease.  

How to Spot High-Conflict People: 

While some high-conflict people may have already sprung to mind, high-conflict personalities are not always so easy to spot.  It may take months or years for a person in a relationship with a high-conflict person to fully spot the ways that the person provokes or prolongs the conflict.  If there is a question of whether a person has a high-conflict personality, there are some signs that you can watch for to evaluate whether a person is in high conflict.  These methods will examine both the person’s words and behavior toward you and the emotions that you react with.  Bill Eddy calls this the WEB method, for words, emotions, and behaviors, to make the signs easy to remember and recall.  These signs are: 

  • Words: One of the easiest things to watch for are the words that a person says.  These people will often see everything as good or bad, which will be reflected in their words.  Their viewpoints will be expressed in extreme or all-or-nothing terms.  They will often use their words to shift the blame away from themselves and onto someone else, never accepting responsibility for their actions.  
  • Emotions: Unlike the first action, this analysis focuses on the emotions of the person that is receiving or evaluating the high-conflict person.  When people are constantly receiving the blame for actions that they did not commit, they will often feel uncomfortable or defensive.  There will be anger, either at themselves or at the other person, if they believe the blame or not.  The emotions of these people will often take over a room and force many others into the emotions.  This helps the high-conflict people get people on their side, 
  • Behavior: Finally, the behavior exhibited by the person will be an indicator of how they manage their emotions and reactions.  This is most often seen in extreme behavior that includes excuses for why the behavior was justified.  It is often behavior that most people would not engage in, even if they were truly provoked.  This may be easy to spot if the person is in a particularly difficult or stressful situation because they will likely be reacting strongly.  However, if a person is not stressed and feeling overwhelmed, they can be on good behavior for days, weeks, or months before their personality takes over and causes conflict.  

When looking at these signs, it is also important to acknowledge that the different types of high-conflict personalities often have different motivations and will exhibit these behaviors in slightly different ways that reflect their motivation.  This means that one high-conflict person may look very different from another, so the motivations and actions may look a little different.  

How to Deal with High Conflict Personality: 

While understanding the patterns and behaviors of high-conflict personalities is important, finding ways to help yourself react to and approach a high-conflict person to resolve a conflict and return to a normal situation is the most important information.  Several tips can help make a conversation with a high-conflict person an easier situation and keep the conversation calm and productive.  It is important to note that these methods should only be used in safe situations.  If there is a danger in the situation, prioritize your safety over keeping the situation calm.  These tips are: 

  • Avoid Apologies: Because high-conflict people are often shifting the blame away from themselves and onto others, they will likely blame you if you are in conflict with them.  However, apologizing will only give them more power, as they will see the apology as a sign of your guilt and it will reaffirm their opinion that you are at fault.  Avoiding apologies while remaining respectful is difficult, especially when they are throwing insults and blame; however, it will stop the person from shifting blame while still keeping the conversation going.  
  • Keep it Brief: While the blame-shifting and extreme behavior may encourage you to respond in a similar fashion or rant at the person, it is best to stay as brief as possible.  In high conflict people often cling to the words said or the actions taken.  A short, carefully constructed sentence will remove the possibility that they will be able to use your words against you later on in the argument.  It will help you make your point without allowing them to find new problems.  
  • Stay Calm: The emotions of the conversation will often encourage you to respond in anger and emotion.  Avoiding extreme behavior and emotions will help the high-conflict person calm down.  If their emotions and actions do not engage you in the same fashion as they would hope they would, they are less likely to keep reacting in that way.  Finding ways to keep the conversation calm is the best consideration. 
  • Research their Personality: When people are consistently blaming you for the problems that they cause, it is easy to begin to believe that you are responsible for those problems.  Understanding the high-conflict personality, as we did above, can help you understand that much of the conflict is the result of the personality of the other person, and you are not responsible for these faults.  
  • Focus on Connection: When a high-conflict person is met with empathy, attention, and respect, they will often feel safer and will be less likely to react in high-conflict styles.  This does not mean admitting fault when there is none, but it does means reacting kindly.  
  • Find Outside Help: While certain interactions with high-conflict people will only need to be addressed at the moment, if you are in a relationship with a high-conflict person, there may be a need to reach out to outside help, such as a counselor or relationship coach.  Having someone outside of the relationship speak about the situation may help the parties address many of the issues and learn how to support each other.  

Dealing with high-conflict people is not an easy task, but understanding the patterns of behavior and the signs that you are interacting with a high-conflict person will help you recognize that you need to adapt your behavior to shift that behavior.  While there are common behaviors that high-conflict people exemplify, there are five different types that will impact how these characteristics are presented, but understanding these types will inform how you react to the situation.  And in any case, it is important to keep the situation and discussion calm.  Doing so will encourage the parties to find common ground and resolve their disputes.  


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