We all know a few people that treat causing grief like it’s a career. It’s as if your life is a video game and they were put here just to make finishing this level harder.
These aren’t simple jerks or someone having a bad day; these are folks with deep-seated problems. Serious interpersonal dysfunction. Lack of social awareness. And, perhaps most notably, an inability to change.
The DSM-5 says that roughly 15% of people meet the criteria for a personality disorder. And most of them are never diagnosed. Now you’re not a psychiatrist and neither am I, so we shouldn’t run around diagnosing people…
But we can learn enough to recognize if someone is a “high-conflict person”, reasonably give a diagnosis of “no good for moi” and steer clear of them.
So what are the three most pernicious flavors of high-conflict people?
They often seem very charming at first but believe they are hugely superior to others. They insult, humiliate, mislead, and lack empathy for their Targets of Blame. They also demand constant undeserved respect and attention from everyone… According to a 2008 report of a National Institutes of Health study, more than 6 percent of the general population has the disorder. That’s more than twenty-two million people in North America.
They often start out extremely friendly—but they can suddenly and unpredictably shift into being extremely angry. When this shift occurs, they may seek revenge for minor or nonexistent slights… The speed with which they turn from seeming to love you to hating you is breathtaking… A 2008 report of a National Institutes of Health study indicates that nearly 6 percent of the general population has BPD.
They can be extremely charismatic—but their charm is a cover for their drive to dominate others through lying, stealing, publicly humiliating people, physically injuring them, and—in extreme cases—murdering them… The large NIH study…determined that 3.6 percent of the population has this disorder. That’s about thirteen million people in North America.
I do want to emphasize that these are disorders. These people are suffering. They’re not necessarily bad people. I don’t want to contribute to mental health stigma — but you need to protect yourself.
Any responsible mental health professional would advise you to keep your distance from people with these problems, if at all possible. Their disorders aren’t going away without serious help, and until they get it, they have the potential to seriously screw your life up.
So how do we learn how to identify and avoid them? Let’s get tips from an expert…
Bill Eddy is a licensed clinical social worker that has provided therapy to patients in psychiatric hospitals for more than a decade. He has taught negotiation and mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and serves as adjunct faculty at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University.
We’re gonna cover the three that are likely to cause the biggest problems for you.
Let’s get to it …
The 4 behavior patterns of high conflict people
Everybody has bad days. Or bad weeks. So how can you tell if someone is coping with some temporary issues or if they are truly an oh-my-god-watch-out-high-conflict-person?
Look for these four patterns of behavior:
HCPs tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution (i.e., everyone doing exactly what the HCP wants). They don’t—and perhaps can’t—analyze the situation, hear different points of view, and consider several possible solutions. Compromise and flexibility seem impossible for them.
HCPs tend to become very emotional about their points of view. They often catch everyone else by surprise with their sudden and intense fear, sadness, yelling, or disrespect. Their responses can be way out of proportion to whatever is happening or being discussed, and they often seem unable to control their own emotions.
HCPs frequently engage in extreme negative behavior. This might include shoving or hitting someone; spreading rumors and outright lies about them; trying to have obsessive contact with them… There are also some HCPs who use emotional manipulation to hurt others but can appear very emotionally in control while they do it… They often seem clueless about how their behavior has a devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.
The single most common—and most obvious—HCP trait is how frequently and intensely they blame other people, especially people close to them and people who seem to be in positions of authority over them.
If somebody does one of these four, hey, nobody’s perfect. But if someone routinely exhibits all 4? Almost certainly an HCP.
It’s always a good idea to take some time getting to know people. Especially before trusting, hiring, or marrying them. Learn about their personal history, preferably from sources other than merely them.
Yes, some people have had a run of bad luck and their past is marked by problems and bad relationships. But nobody has consistent bad luck for decades. This is probably not someone who has tragically gone from problem situation to problem situation; this is probably Patient Zero.
And if you seriously suspect someone is an HCP, under no circumstances should you accuse them of being a narcissist, borderline or antisocial. You might as well write “please ruin my life” on your forehead.
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So you have suspicions about someone. Specifically, what should you look for? Scrutinize their words, emotions and behavior. Let’s start with words …
Words to look for
Each type gives clues if you listen closely:
- Narcissistic HCPs: Anything that indicates arrogance, entitlement, and a lack of empathy. They see the world as made up of winners and losers.
- Borderline HCPs: Victim narratives will be front and center. You’ll feel bad for them because it seems like their life keeps burning down (but they’ll neglect to mention they’re an arsonist).
- Antisocial HCPs: They will probably attempt to break the record for most lies told in a single conversation.
But all three will eventually display blaming of others, all-or-nothing thinking, victim stories, and a desire to punish.
Watch out for words that grab your attention, especially a pattern of all-or-nothing language. “You always . . .” “You never . . .” “It’s my way or the highway!” “It’s ALL your fault!” Keep in mind that we all say these things occasionally. It’s the pattern and intensity of frequently speaking and writing this way that should grab your attention.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
So you know what words to look for. But even more telling are emotions …
Emotions to look for
Extreme ones. Extreme charm, extreme love, and extreme anger are all signs of possible trouble.
Or someone who is tightly controlled with their emotions until — BOOM. They lose it. And suddenly they’re so unrecognizable that you skip telling them to calm down and consider calling an exorcist.
The other emotions to stay aware of are your own. How are they making you feel? Many people end up in toxic romantic relationships with narcissists or borderlines and wonder how it happened. Those powerful feelings they experienced weren’t love — they were emotional manipulation.
Anytime you feel extreme emotions with someone you barely know, it pays to slow things down and be a bit circumspect. So what are you most likely to feel with each type?
With Narcissistic HCPs:
Do you feel stupid or otherwise inadequate around the person? Do you feel in awe of the person and amazed that he or she is spending time with you? … Does it feel like this person has lost interest in you or now insults you in front of others?
When astronomers finally discover the center of the universe, narcissists will be shocked they are not it.
With Borderline HCPs:
Do you feel extremely frustrated with the person, like you want to shake them or yell at them to get them to stop behaving in some inappropriate way? …Are you amazed that your emotions swing back and forth so extremely with this person?
If you wonder how the fully grown adult in front of you has suddenly become the most emotionally overwrought manipulative adolescent imaginable, seeming to cycle through completely different personalities faster than you can change channels on your TV, that’s a borderline.
With Antisocial HCPs:
Do you sometimes feel a sense of danger just being around this person? Do you sometimes get a cold, creepy feeling when this person is around? Do other people tell you that this person can’t be trusted and is a con artist?
If you’ve wondered, “Is there anything this person wouldn’t say to get what they want?” Helloooooo, antisocial.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Emotions are good signs. But nothing beats behavior …
Behavior to look for
This can seem tricky because there’s no exhaustive list. But there is a simple method you can use that’s quite effective: the “90% rule.”
When you see something extremely negative, ask yourself: Would 90 percent of people ever do this? If the answer is no, you are almost always watching a high-conflict personality in action.
Yes, they’re going to make excuses. Wasn’t my fault, I had a rough day, the dog ate my homework and it was the aliens that built the pyramids. It’ll always be something.
But the most dangerous excuses are the ones you might find yourself making to explain such bad behavior. This means you’re already under their spell…
So relay the story to an objective third party and ask their honest opinion to make sure you’re not in denial about what kind of person you’ve been dealing with.
(To learn how to make your life awesome, click here.)
Okay, at this point you know they are officially a 100% USDA-approved high-conflict person. (Um… congratulations?) So what do you do now?
No further contact. Period.
But, sadly, that is not always an option. So here’s a simple 4-step method for handling that next encounter …
No, Lightning McQueen, we’re not talking about the Pixar movie. It’s an acronym:
- Connect with empathy, attention, and respect
- Analyze alternatives or options
- Respond to misinformation or hostility
- Set limits on high-conflict behavior
First, make sure you’re calm. You don’t want to be reactive and you don’t want to show any negativity. (And that can prove very challenging with these people.)
Ready? Alright, let’s walk through the 4 steps …
1) CONNECT WITH ATTENTION, EMPATHY, AND RESPECT
With narcissists and antisocials, emphasize respect. With borderlines, focus on empathy.
“I can see this is a frustrating situation. [Empathy] Tell me more—I want to understand what’s happening from your point of view. [Attention] I have a lot of respect for your efforts to resolve this problem. [Respect]”
Always communicate in a way that you would like them to mirror.
2) ANALYZE ALTERNATIVES OR OPTIONS
Always deal with the problem at hand by presenting them with choices. It gives them the illusion of autonomy and control, which will reduce further conflict.
Talk about options or choices that the person has. You can turn anything into a choice, which makes the person feel more empowered and more respected. For example: Suppose a narcissistic HCP has just dropped in or called you, demanding attention. You could respond: “I can help you right now, but only for about five minutes. Next week, if we schedule it, I can spend about an hour with you on this. It’s up to you.” This approach helps you turn their demand into a choice, so that you can limit their disruption of your time while they still feel respected and considered.
3) RESPOND TO MISINFORMATION OR HOSTILITY
Use a “BIFF response” — brief, informative, friendly and firm.
This is what I call a BIFF response: It’s brief (just a sentence or paragraph), informative (just straight information, not defensiveness), friendly (keeps the tone nonadversarial), and firm (meaning it ends the potentially hostile discussion).
4) SET LIMITS ON HIGH-CONFLICT BEHAVIOR
If your boundaries seem arbitrary they will almost certainly try and steamroll you. Narcissists will demand, borderlines will cry, and antisocials will turn on the charm.
So make sure your limits come from an external source outside your control: “I’d love to give you what you want but my boss/spouse/dominatrix just won’t let me.”
That’s why you can’t just say no; you have to back it up with firm boundaries and clear consequences for violating them. You may need to set limits on the topics you will discuss, the amount of time you will spend together, the tasks you will do or not do for them, and so forth. In practice, we do this with everyone we meet, but people who are not high-conflict types intuitively understand our limits and normally don’t violate them… Make it clear that the limit isn’t about them; explain how your schedule, your boss, or other external circumstances require you to set this limit, and hold it firmly in place.
And make sure to never trigger the deepest fear of an HCP while dealing with them:
- Narcissistic HCPs fear disrespect. Of course, they act like jerks and people inevitably lose respect for them.
- Borderline HCPs fear abandonment. Of course, they are a nonstop emotional rollercoaster that makes everyone run away from them as soon as humanly possible.
- Antisocial HCPs fear control. So they break every rule and often end up in prison, utterly controlled.
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Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and talk about the dangers of flying monkeys. Yes, I said “flying monkeys” …
This is how to avoid toxic people:
- Behavior patterns to look for: Blaming, all-or-nothing thinking, playing the victim and unmanaged emotions.
- Words to look for: “I blame you for not paying more attention to what I wrote above. You never, ever read what I write, do you? I feel so victimized by you skimming this page. And one day I’ll get back at you. Just you wait…”
- Emotions to look for: Your own. If you’re having extreme ones — even if they’re positive — be wary.
- Behavior to look for: 90% of people would not kick an old lady down a flight of stairs. (Even if she did have it coming.)
- Use “CARS”: Connect, Analyze Options, Respond with BIFF, Set Limits.
So what’s a flying monkey? If you’re thinking “Wizard of Oz”, you get the reference. They’re the ones that did the Wicked Witch’s dirty work.
Flying monkeys are people under the spell of the HCP. They fell for one of the victim stories — and in this narrative you’re the bad guy. HCP’s love a good smear campaign.
So the flying monkey thinks they’re being a good friend, coming to the aid of their beleaguered pal, and attacking you — that horrible, horrible person. This can lead to rumors spread around the office or social circles that make you look bad and probably aren’t easily traceable back to their source, the HCP.
The flying monkey is probably a decent person just trying to “do the right thing” for their “friend.” And if you unload on them, you’ll look like the monster you’ve been portrayed as. If you say mean things about the HCP, you’ll just prove your guilt. So what do you do when confronted by a flying monkey?
First off, be nice. Second, the only way to break the spell and clear your name is to provide verifiable, accurate information about the evildoings of the HCP. It’s no guarantee, but if you keep your cool and only say things that will check out, you may be able to free them from the Wicked Witch’s mind control — and get yourself an ally.
One final, very important point: don’t let all this make you paranoid.
Most people are good. But if someone gets your Spidey-Sense tingling, pay attention to their words, notice your emotions, try the 90% rule, use CARS — and be nice to flying monkeys.
In the end, the only way to truly win with toxic people is not to play.
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