Friday, December 16, 2011

Compassion for High Conflict People

As the year draws to a close and we focus on holiday celebrations, we think about others including the less fortunate. All year long, at our website and in seminars we talk about high conflict people (HCPs) and how to deal with them. Sometimes we forget to emphasize compassion for them as well.

No one chooses to be a high conflict person or to have a personality disorder (there’s a lot of overlap). High conflict people have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and are preoccupied with a Target of Blame. From my experience, they are highly distressed and lack the skills for satisfying relationships. They get stuck in conflict because they feel on the defensive, not because their goal is to make other people miserable. They have great difficulty healing and accepting loss. It is too painful, so instead they fight to avoid losses and defeats – even insignificant ones. I think of having a high conflict personality as a serious relationship disability.

They tend sabotage themselves by pushing people away in an effort to avoid being abandoned (borderline HCPs), insulted (narcissistic HCPs), ignored (histrionic HCPs), dominated (antisocial HCPs) or betrayed (paranoid HCPs). They cannot see their part in this problem, so they often escalate their self-defeating behavior – and therefore experience even more distress.

Just because many high conflict people are successful at something in their lives does not mean they do not feel pain and lack meaningful relationships. It’s easy to pick on them when they seem to be successful on the surface, such as having wealth, power, incredible beauty or other superficial rewards. Of course, most high conflict people do not have wealth, power, incredible beauty or other superficial rewards. The research shows that personality disorders are more prevalent among low-income people. 

Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote that love and work are the most important aspects of a human life. Yet close relationships in love and work are where high conflict people have the most difficulty. In his book “The Social Animal,” David Brooks points out that close relationships are far more successful at making people happy than work, money or real estate. The deeper the relationships, the happier the person. How tragic it is that we seem to have a growing population of high conflict people who will not be satisfied and don’t know why.

While it’s easy to be critical of them and want to screen out high conflict people from our lives, it’s important for us to work on this issue as a society. Since people with personality disorders appear to be increasing (and most high conflict people seem to have personality disorders or traits, which means they don’t have insight into their own behavior and don’t change their dysfunctional behavior), this problem is not one we can ignore. With High Conflict Institute we are committed to educating professionals and the general public about these problems and how to set limits on high conflict behavior – while also having more empathy, attention, and respect for high conflict people themselves.

Tis the season for compassion. We wish you and yours – and all the HCPs in our lives – a pleasant holiday season! 

High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations, as well and books, DVDs and CDs regarding dealing with High Conflict People (HCPs) in legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author ofIt's All Your Fault!, Splitting, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns and Don't Alienate the Kids!. He is an author, attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, Sweden, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, Bill Eddy or to purchase a book, CD or DVD, visit:


Anonymous said...

Bill - I admire your ability to think compassionately of high conflict people. There is a subset of these people who are willing to do extreme things such as make completely false allegations against their "target of blame", and lie about these things (example: false allegations of child abuse) in court. As someone who loves a "target" who is being attacked by a HCP (his ex-wife)by exactly these false allegations, I can say it is extremely difficult if not impossible to have compassion for someone who does these things.

Colleen D. said...

Thanks Bill and Megan,
Your insights and provocative teaching continues to inspire so much of my work and many relationships. I truly appreciate your message of compassion. In the midst of high conflict finding and holding compassion is a difficult, challenging place to rise up to - but worth the value-laden journey.
Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Bill - I too agree with the statements of 'Anonymous said...' I too am a "target" whose character has been viciously maligned by a HCP in a court of law. So, I strongly disagree with your suggestion of extending compassion for high conflict people; compassion intead should be given to those who painstakingly endure the abuse that comes from a hig conflict person.

Anonymous said...

Bill, I think your compassion is admirable, and your strategies for working with HCPs make a lot of sense. But I've been looking through this site for any help for those of us who might actually be HCPs, and I can't find it. Any thoughts on how to stop (or at least redirect) that flood of emotion and defensiveness, and act in the calm, rational way that seems normal to everyone else? Anything I can tell myself when I'm feeling abandoned, ignored, insulted, squashed, or betrayed? At present my instinct is very much to respond in a typical HCP way - and then I'm consumed with remorse for being a jerk and hurting someone else. I'd like to think there's hope for HCPs to improve - for their own sake and everyone else's!