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Dealing with a High Conflict Personality? Three goals for survival…

August 19, 2016

Do you have a partner, a colleague, a friend, a loved one where everything is a challenge and every conversation becomes a competition; where if they don’t get their way, there is hell to pay; where they are relentless in their pursuit; where somehow or other they are always right; where if they lose, someone else is always to blame? Then that person may have a High Conflict Personality (HCP). They may be a High Conflict Person (HCP)

Coined by Bill Eddy in 2003, Bill is an American with degrees in law and social work. Bill realized that the standard personality diagnosis available in the Diagnostic and Statistic’s Manual didn’t convey some common features of this personality disposition. Although not an actually recognized diagnosis as per the manual on psychiatric disorders, the High Conflict Personality resonates loud and clear for those working in the field of human relationships, be those relationships be between intimate couples, separated couples, employees or employees and employers or managers.

Bill Eddy identifies the main features of the HCP as including;

  1. All or none thinking;
  2. Unmanaged emotions;
  3. Extreme behaviors;
  4. Blaming others.

All or none thinking is also referred to as dichotomous thinking, where the persons sees things as either night or day, good or bad. Everything is divided very simply in two, with one part seen as favorable and the other part seen as unfavorable. There is no gray area in this person’s thinking. You are either for me and my way of doing things or wanting what I want or… not. There is no real room for compromise, middle or creative solutions where both sides may come away satisfied. And whoa-be-tied if this person isn’t satisfied because then you will see unmanaged emotions.

Those unmanaged emotions typically come across as hostility, anger, bitterness and resentment. They are expressed clearly and often loudly. You will always know when an HCP is unsatisfied with an outcome and so will everyone around the person.

As for extreme behaviors, these are not just persons who vent their discontent, they seek to discharge their discontent overtly. These are the persons who will try to “out” you as somehow inferior, wrong or bad; let others know their view of you; try to influence others to their side and their projection of you as a terrible person. These are the people who will file complaints and if unsatisfied with the outcome of the complaint, may escalate the matter further by then complaining about the complaint process and those involved. They may suggest conspiracy theories and continue to seek to bring others to their way of thinking and seeing themselves as the victim.

The HCP lacks insight and cannot reflect upon themselves and their own behavior to appreciate their contribution to distress As a result, they externalize their upset by projecting blame on others. In Bill Eddy terms, they seek a target of blame.

Like a laser guided missile or a junk yard dog on a bone, they will zero in and not let go. They seek to not just hold their target of blame somehow accountable for misfortune originating with themselves, but to annihilate the person who they see as thwarting their objective. This is consistent with their all or none thinking. There can be no good in the person they are seeking to annihilate. Their target of blame is all bad and nothing that person has ever done could be good. Their solutions require their target of blame to not only lose with regard to the matter of dispute, but to lose everything either personally or professionally.

There are different degrees of HCP, but the underlying features remain. To add, each HCP will possess a different level of sophistication. As such, some people with HCP will be easily seen as the source of the problem, despite their complaints and projections. These are the persons whose behavior may be so extreme as to create trouble with the law or whose lies are so self-evident that other people can quickly see through them, or whose claims are so outrageous so as not to make sense on face value.

Then there are the ones who are more sophisticated, who are able to keep their behavior on the lawful side of the line, who may use more institutional structures to act out their discontent. These are the persons who will take to the Internet to post anonymous complaints and diatribes; who will make countless complaints to review boards; who will seek to undermine ones position or profession; who will continually seek to take things to courts at any level. These people can distort the truth and make their false claims appear plausible. These are the persons who are adept at lawful harassment and indeed may be more dangerous as a result.

Bill Eddy advises of a number of approaches to working with people High Conflict Personalities. One approach regards how to reply or respond to the diatribes and lengthy emails, texts and voice messages often associated with these persons. Bill speaks of BIFF – Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. The challenge is to not be inducted or defensive with regard to every point and issue raised by this person, but to stay true to the kernel of the issue at hand and only address that issue and to do so reasonably, clearly and with a friendly tone.

The other strategy Bill suggests, he refers to as EAR – Empathy, Attention, Respect. Bill suggests that any persons who he would identify as having an HCP may also have an underlying Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So while many HCPs may have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, not all Narcissistic Personality Disorders are HCPs. Assuming an underlying Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the EAR approach address the person’s need to be seen as extra special, unique and deserving of respect and attention, regardless of how you may truly feel about the person and regardless of that person’s actual behavior.

BIFF and EAR are all about management strategies to cope, get along with, negotiate with, etc. These strategies are not about changing the person identified as having a HCP, but only to co-exist, manage or survive.

Do BIFF and EAR always work? Absolutely not. Sometimes regardless of approach, the person with the HCP will just not like the outcome regardless of approach and will continue to rail upon their target of blame continuing to seek their desired outcome.

Therapy for the person identified as HCP tends to be of little to no value. Given a lack of insight, their inability to reflect upon themselves precludes traditional therapy.

If you are in a relationship with such a person, or working with such a person or exiting a relationship with such a person, get help and support for yourself. You can learn better coping and management strategies. This won’t necessarily make the associated issues go away, but it may at least provide some degree of relief.

As much as you may want to set the record straight, don’t bother. These persons will outshout you and your defense only creates the conditions for them to continue. The real goals are

  1. To be at peace with yourself;
  2. Seek outcomes that while not perfect, are bearable;
  3. And get on with your own life.

Feel free to download this as a 2-page article to print or hand out or link to on your website.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Please check out my services and then call me if you need help with a child behavior, relationship issue or difficult person.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

  1. Well written, Gary. Dealing with an HCP is difficult and frustrating. Bill Eddy and you give good advice.

  2. Phyllis Kee permalink

    Excellent work. HCP types are definitely not rare. I wish they were. Truly.

  3. Phyllis Kee permalink

    Excellence. I’ll ponder, they exist and seem to be ample in number, the question(s) associated would be, “How do they come to be in the first place?” The seeds, roots, that give birth to HCP. Then, whatever the answers, which could lead to solutions, would bring me to: “Whatever the conditionings are, for human kind to “talk” about it and get it fixed. The world would be so much more peaceful. My humble opinion. Thank you Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW Much Respect.

  4. In dealing with HCP it’s good to remember that it’s the behaviour and not the person that’s the problem, otherwise we can end up in a “them-and-us” situation which creates it’s own problems. Notwithstanding these issues, the HCP definition is, I believe, a very helpful description. Thank you for the insight. Fiona

    • Maryanne permalink

      Thank you for your insight. How can I help someone who is like this. They don’t see it. It’s a close family.

  5. Maryanne permalink

    How can we help them when they are 24.
    Causes etc. I’d like to know a lot more.

  6. Linda permalink

    Ever heard of Borderline Personality Disorder and DBT?

    • Of course. As per Bill Eddy, a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can also underlie an HCP, but again, not all BPD are HCP. As for DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), there has to be an acknowledgement of distress stemming from the disorder that in part motivates the person to attend the treatment. With regard to HCP, that kind of distress tends to be absent. If there is distress acknowledged, it is with having to deal with the target of blame and projections on the target of blame as the cause of the distress. Hence the HCP is not amenable to to DBT treatment. In fact, almost by definition, if the person is amenable to treatment, then we can differentiate the diagnoses. Hope this helps….

    • Maryanne permalink

      How can we help them

      • As per the blog post, we often cannot help these folks. However, we can learn to better manage them and ourselves to hopefully mitigate some of the destructive behavior.

      • There are two kinds of people when it comes to MH disorders. One group of people are called Ego Dystonic and the other group is called Ego Syntonic. The former acknowledge that they have a ‘problem’, experience ‘distress’, or see that they have issues in ‘functioning’, and don’t want to be like that. They may even want to change things an engage in therapy or personal growth related activities. Those people can seek out help and can improve, possibly improving and even recovering. The other group, however, ‘doesn’t have a problem’ and tend to chronically blame others, so that it’s ‘always everyone else’s fault’. They are cool with how they are and do not seek out, or want, change. I hope that explains it some for you, Maryanne.

  7. Hi Gary

    Having deal with employees who demonstrate the patterns you clearly outline, I appreciate the candid tips in dealing with these relationships.

    I have had very negative experiences which have lead to feeling like a victim myself. My major learning was that a lack of insight into their contribution to our conflict, and persistence in putting all responsibility on me was dis empowering until I realized I could work at being calm myself, seek support, and try to focus on the issues.

    I tend to avoid seeing patterns as indicative of “personality disorders”, but narcissism is a developmental issue I believe we all have to a degree. Some of us grow out of it. Others apparently do not and by definition do not understand their contribution, seeing the issue as a lack of acceptance when anyone disagrees with them.

    The suggestion to be calm, clear and kind with clarity about the issues is key. In my experience any feedback other than positive, strength base is reacted to in an aggressive manner. Listening and reflecting back their concerns helps to calm down the interaction. The challenge is remaining clear about your concerns. Often having a witness or support person, usually at their request, is a good thing because it help you monitor your emotions. In my case in is difficult to resist my desire to ensure both party’s “need” to share some responsibility for the conflict. I recognize and accept, on a good day, that some folks will not share my views about being responsible about their own behaviour.

    Thanks for posting this.

  8. Stephanie permalink

    Thank you for giving us a context for our high conflict custody case with my husband’s exwife. This names exactly what is happening, and It is profoundly painful, especially as the boys (8 and 10) seem to believe her stories, which she expresses to them unabashedly. It feels impossible to fight, especially since she convinced the professional evaluator of her being the best parent, and my husband being worthless (which is of course a complete lie).

  9. Soupy Sayles permalink

    After many yrs of recovery I keep hearing new behaviours. Working on my Codependentcy, I learn of passive aggressive behaviour which I self analyzed my life partner as having this behaviour. Read many books on how to deal with this & has helped. I’ve never heard of, ” high conflict disorder, ” but I recognize this behaviour too. They are all so closely related, can a person have all three. If so, I believe I just need to concentrate on my own life.

  10. Pilar Tyson permalink

    I think it’s important to remember that not all people who see the world as “black & white” have HCP. As a parent to a child with Autism, seeing the world in “black & white” has to do with the wiring of their brain. Their responses are fact based.

    Their brain receives information and if it is not correct they will say,”No you are wrong.” Not because they want to start a conflict but because in their mind the answer is not correct and they are informing you.

    Their brain is not wired to think,”Hmmm….If I say you’re wrong that might hurt their feelings. Maybe, I need to say “I don’t think that is right and here is why.” People with Autism have to learn and be taught to follow social rules. It is not natural nor is it always easy for them to control their impulses and behaviors to societal norms.

    My daughter is 11 and cries when she doesn’t think she is learning something quickly enough or if she gets less than an A. Society, her teachers, etc… will say. “Don’t cry! Crying is for babies.”
    My daughter gets confused because she says,”I don’t understand everyone cries. Not just babies. Why do they get mad and tell me that?”

    Autism is continuing to increase at a steady rate 1 of 68 children was the number scientists and doctors were sharing and now they say 1 of 45 children is more accurate. I hope that some people remember that there are those with disabilities who are doing their best to adapt to social norms and it is a learning process.

  11. Soupy permalink

    Sir with all due respect, as I read the first part, I thought this describes a codependent behaviour which I go to meetings for. The last part of hcp explanation I thought, boy this is an example of passive aggressive behaviour which I am living with & is a horrible behaviour. Recognized person as having resentful feelings & trying to get even.

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