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A few years ago I picked up a call from an acquaintance, “Jane,” expecting to resolve a minor issue between our kids. About three seconds into the call, I learned Jane did not believe the issue was minor at all. I was caught off guard and, throughout our brief screaming match, I vigorously defended myself. Jane hung up on me. I was dumbfounded and furious!
I spent the next several hours calling my husband, my mom, and anyone else who would listen to me rant. I’ll even admit I posted something passive aggressive on Facebook (yikes!). On the advice of my wise husband, I called Jane several hours later to try to smooth things over. My message, “let’s agree to disagree,” went over like a ton of bricks. Jane was not having it! I hung up the phone and decided that Jane was a total jerk. I was angry, frustrated, and had spent the better part of my day dealing with this drama.
So, why am I telling you about my bad behavior in this very public arena? I have since learned that people we commonly refer to as “jerks” have an actual clinical label: high conflict people, or HCPs. Most of us who work in the divorce field have all run into a few HCPs. According to Bill Eddy at the High Conflict Institute, characteristics of HCPs include:
- Black-or-white thinking, inflexibility, inability to compromise, and unable to consider alternative points-of-view
- Overreaction and intense emotional responses to minor problems or conflicts, and
- Little insight into how their behavior affects people, a lack of accountability, and persistent blame of others.
If you are the parent of a teenager, these characteristics may sound familiar! The good news is they should grow out of it. However, about 15% never do and become adults with high-conflict personalities.
When we have a run-in with an HCP in our family, community, or workplace, many of us will do exactly what I did with Jane: defend ourselves, vent to everyone we know (on social media, gasp!), and try to get them to see the situation rationally. This is a perfect recipe for what not to do when confronted by an HCP. The best strategies are:
- Disengage when possible. These are not people you are going to “win” an argument with, no matter how good and rational your argument may be. Engaging will only pull you further into the drama and drive you crazy. By engaging you are giving the HCP exactly what they are looking for: more conflict. If you really want make them mad and keep your inner peace, don’t respond!
- Manage the relationship. If the HCP is a family member or employed at your workplace, disengagement may not be possible. If this is the case, do your best to manage the relationship and develop strong boundaries. Show the person respect by being courteous and maintaining civility. Keep interactions focused on tasks and avoid emotional involvement. If the HCP becomes combative, calmly communicate you will not be treated with disrespect and remove yourself from the situation.
- Do your best not to gossip. The saying, “what we feed will grow” applies here. Talking to everyone you know about the HCP will only keep the conflict active and alive. Even worse, the gossip will probably get back to the HCP and then you will have to deal with him or her again. If you really need to vent, find one person you trust and who does not know the HCP. Give yourself 15 minutes to rant and then be done. Another great strategy is writing a letter to the HCP but not sending it. Whatever you do, avoid posting anything negative on social media. Not only does this make you look petty, a nasty public statement will only exacerbate the conflict.
The number of high conflict people in our world seems to be growing. Maybe it’s reality TV, maybe it’s helicopter parents, maybe it’s a general pervasiveness of self-centeredness in our society. Whatever the reason, we are likely to encounter them from time to time. When we do, remember to KEEP CALM AND DISENGAGE!
Erin Kassebaum provides mediation, coaching and parenting consulting services on a sliding fee scale. She is located in Bloomington. Please feel free to contact Erin with any comments or questions at 612.599.8366 or firstname.lastname@example.org. “Like” her on Facebook at: facebook.com/erinkassebaumrds.