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Dealing With Defensiveness In High Conflict People

When most people think of high conflict people (HCPs), they think of bad behavior. HCPs can be difficult people with whom to work, live and resolve conflicts. They can be rigid, angry, attacking, criticizing, lying, spreading rumors, manipulative, self-absorbed, attention-getting, self-sabotaging, and sometimes violent. Most people respond to this bad behavior by giving negative feedback: criticizing, lecturing or threatening the HCP. Some people publically humiliate them, call them crazy/stupid/evil/immoral, or ask them lots of questions. (Why did you do that? What were you thinking?) Which aren’t really questions, but criticisms. They often give this negative feedback instead of understanding their HCP behavior and setting real limits on their behavior.

The goal seems to be to get them to STOP their bad behavior, by verbally motivating them to have insights into how bad they are acting. I have learned that we just need to Forgetaboutit! The high conflict behavior of HCPs is not driven by logic and self-awareness. It’s driven primarily by unconscious defensiveness. If you don’t understand this and don’t accept this, you will waste your time arguing for insights and miss your opportunities to calm them down and set real limits on their behavior. You will be endlessly frustrated, and you are likely to actually increase their bad behavior, rather than leading them to insights and behavior change.

Defensive Behavior

This insight-oriented response is normal, of course. In her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, researcher Cordelia Fine tells us that when other people act badly, we automatically believe they are doing it intentionally. But when WE act badly, our own brains automatically treat it as inadvertent, a mistake, unavoidable, or caused by forces beyond our control. This double standard allows us to automatically feel morally superior while protecting our own egos from thinking we are jerks, incompetent, or crazy/stupid/evil/immoral. In other words, our basic and automatic brain responses don’t help in today’s complex world and often make things worse.

Rather than focusing on their behavior as being bad, it will help you much more to understand that their behavior is defensive. The HCP perceives a threat and is trying to protect him or herself. In other words, they can’t just stop this behavior because others think its “bad.” They are doing this behavior because they think it’s necessary and appropriate for self-protection. HCPs don’t usually agree that their behavior is “bad” and they will find another inappropriate, often self-sabotaging behavior to replace it.

In the Family

Let’s look at domestic violence, for example. Hitting one’s spouse or partner is bad, we all agree. Batterer’s treatment programs teach batterers to not hit. There’s research that shows that these programs are generally successful at getting people to stop hitting a spouse/partner. Yet, in many cases, the battering behavior is replaced by other “bad” behaviors – usually of the “power and control” type. Controlling money, manipulating friends and family, and fighting over children can come next. The point is that the batterer (usually an HCP) feels that he or she is defending against a relationship problem. The defensive behavior feels necessary, not optional or frivolous, to the HCP, and they now look for another way to solve the problem – often a different “bad” behavior.

Or look at child alienation, when a parent shares intensely negative emotions and comments with a child about the other parent – which leads the child to resist contact with that other parent. Family law professionals admonish parents all the time to avoid making disparaging remarks about the other parent in the presence of the child. The irony is that parents who criticize each other in the presence of the child don’t think they are acting badly. They think they are acting in a protective manner. In some cases, the “alienating parent” truly believes that the “rejected parent” has done something awful to the child. If you tell that parent to stop alienating the child, it feels as if you are telling them to stop protecting their child and allow the child to be horribly abused.

Of course, in some cases a child is being abused and the “alienating parent” was right. These are very difficult cases to figure out, but one thing is clear: HCP parents are not intentionally trying to act badly. They are trying to be protective in their own minds – either from abuse or from alienation. When family law professionals don’t understand this, they often make things worse by angrily criticizing one or both parents for behaving badly, which increases their distress, which increases their children’s distress, which increases alienation.

In the Workplace

It’s easy to view an employee’s, co-worker’s or boss’ behavior as the result of the person being a jerk. At work, the person is discussed as incompetent, crazy, stupid, evil, or immoral. Whether it’s a supervisor, an employee, the owner, or clerical staff, it’s easy to judge the whole person based on a single bad act. However, simply venting or blaming doesn’t solve the problem. Unless the person is going to be fired or moved to a different division, you are going to have to deal with that person.

In his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton argues that businesses should avoid hiring such people (essentially HCPs) and he also gives examples of verbally humiliating them to get them to stop their behavior. While I agree with the first point, I don’t agree that humiliating HCPs leads to self-awareness and solves the problem. My experience is that it often makes things worse – because it increases the defensiveness driving the behavior, rather than reduces it.

Mistaken Assessment of Danger

“Okay,” you might say. “Maybe I’ll consider that HCPs are not purposely engaging in ‘bad behavior.’ But what could they be so defensive about? Their responses are so out of proportion to the situation and makes things worse. Why can’t they see this and why do they often attack the very people who are trying to help them – like me?”

After studying the issues of HCPs for the past ten years, I believe that they have personality disorders or traits of personality disorders. This means that they have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors – and that they are NOT self-aware, because these are personality-based problems they have gotten used to all their lives.

A key aspect of this is that they repeatedly have a Mistaken Assessment of Danger. They truly believe that they are in danger from those close to them or people in authority – which they then attack as their Target(s) of Blame. In many ways this is based on their gut feelings rather than a rational analysis of the situation (although some can appear to have been very rational at times, the driving force is mistaken feeling of danger). For HCPs, their fears have more to do with early childhood relationship dangers than present dangers. For some HCPs, their survival may have really been in question early on, or their genetic tendencies reinforced excessive fears. For example:

  • Borderline HCPs appear to have an unconscious and extreme fear of abandonment. This drives clinging behavior and raging behavior (which tends to push people to abandon them).
  • Narcissistic HCPs appear to have an unconscious and extreme fear of being inferior or helpless. This drives extreme efforts to be seen as superior and to insult and demean others (which tend to push people to insult them and see them as inferior).
  • Antisocial HCPs appear to have an unconscious and extreme fear of being dominated by others. This drives extreme efforts to dominate, manipulate, deceive and harm others (which tends to get them in legal trouble and often locked up).
  • Histrionic HCPs appear to have an unconscious and extreme fear of being ignored. This drives them to be constantly dramatic and intense (which tends to push people to try to ignore them).
  • Paranoid HCPs appear to have an unconscious and extreme fear of be betrayed by those close to them. This drives them to assume plots and conspiracies, so they hold unwarranted grudges and attack others first to protect themselves (which pushes people to be afraid to be direct with them and therefore they make secret efforts to get rid of them).

All of these unconscious fears lead HCPs to constantly engage in Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive (B.A.D.). But the underlying problem is their Mistaken Assessment of Danger (M.A.D.). If you don’t reduce that, then you will get one Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive after another. If you can reduce that mistaken assessment, then you may not get any Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive, because the person won’t feel the need to defend him or herself.

As you can see, M.A.D. drives B.A.D. These are the first and second steps of the Cycle of High Conflict Thinking. The third step is Negative Feedback. As I have explained above, Negative Feedback generally backfires with HCPs, because it feeds their Mistaken Assessment of Danger and the cycle continues.

How Can You Deal with this Defensiveness?

Here are three basic suggestions:

1) Reduce their Mistaken Assessment of Danger:

Try not to be emotionally threatening. Realize that the HCP may be operating out of a life-long Mistaken Assessment of Danger. Observe if any of the fears described above may fit the person you are dealing with. If so, make an effort to reduce those fears by the way you interact with the person. With a Borderline HCP, try to maintain a moderate, even-tempered manner that’s not too close and not too rejecting (avoid abandonment). With a Narcissistic HCP, try to avoid insults and instead find things you can respect about the person (avoid treating them as inferior). With an Antisocial HCP, be cautious about believing their many stories of being victimized by others, but avoid trying to dominate them in verbal interactions. With Histrionic HCPs, try to pay brief attention to their dramatic stories, and then gently focus on a task or a topic you can be interested in, and then end the conversation by explaining you have to leave (rather than seeming to belittle them). With Paranoid HCPs, don’t try to convince them of your trustworthiness – just be matter-of-fact and focus on what the rules are and why you have to follow them (avoid seeming suspicious of the person and avoid focusing on their fears).

2) Set Limits on Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive:

Of course, bad behavior needs to be stopped. But the most effective way to do this is to show empathy and concern for the person (along the lines of what was described above), AND explain the rules or reasons the specific behavior needs to be stopped (try not to make it personal) AND what the consequences are if it continues. You can express regret that you have to address this behavior, but at the same time explain how you want to help the person and how other behaviors will be more effective at getting them what they want. The key here is that you want to help the person accomplish the goal (being respected, not being ignored, etc.) that was underlying the bad behavior. You want to help them address the underlying concern. For example, if an employee sent out a nasty email to others in the department, you discuss the consequence for doing that. But also discuss what the employee was trying to accomplish and a better way to do that. It may be that the employee felt disrespected and therefore reacted with disrespect for others. You can explain that a better way would be to simply point out available ways to be treated with respect that don’t involved treating others with disrespect.

3) Avoid Giving Negative Feedback:

As this whole article explains, it is automatic for us to respond with negative feedback to bad behavior. With the ordinary co-worker, neighbor, or family member, negative feedback may be helpful or at least neutral. However, with HCPs, negative feedback is taken extremely personally and feeds their Mistaken Assessment of Danger – which triggers their bad behavior in an effort to defend themselves against the “danger” – which is more about personality-based fears than it is about anything in the present. Of course, you can’t point this out to the person or you will get even more bad behavior in their defensive response. Instead, focus on reducing emotional threats and on matter-of-factly setting limits on the behavior. Regardless of how severe the consequences may be for the “bad” behavior, communicate that you want to help the person. If you can demonstrate a desire to help through your own attitude and behavior, it often makes a huge, positive difference to an HCP.

These Principles Can Apply Anywhere

Whether you are a professional helping others resolve disputes (mediator, lawyer, judge, etc.), whether you are a manager (from the smallest department to the largest organization), or whether you are someone’s Target of Blame, these three tips can be applied. You can even keep this in mind at home with your family (especially if you have an HCP relative or an ordinary teenager!). Don’t be surprised that these three methods are hard to do. They are the opposite of what your own defensive brain really wants to do! But we can change our brains, as Norman Doidge tells us in his book The Brain That Changes Itself. With practice, and with a growing community of dispute resolvers who understand HCPs, we can manage and reduce the effects of their bad behavior, and make all of our lives a little less defensive.


Bill Eddy

Bill Eddy is the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides training to professionals dealing with high conflict disputes. Bill is an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons, mental health professionals, hospital administrators, college administrators, homeowners association managers and… MORE >

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