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Any large organization will deal with high-conflict personalities, author says


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CONTACT: Donald Harrison-Acting Director Community & College Affairs

AUGUST 29, 2013

EL CAJON-GROSSMONT COLLEGE – People in any large organization, whether in private business or the public sector, are likely to encounter five different types of “high-conflict personalities,” attorney and author Bill Eddy said recently during a seminar with some of Grossmont College’s top administrators.

About 21 percent of Americans have personality disorders, some of whom engage in “high-conflict behavior,” especially those who are described as “narcissistic, borderline, paranoid, antisocial or histrionic,” according to Eddy. He said that their incidence in the American population has been growing generation by generation. There are three theories for why this may be so, he said in a meeting earlier this week with the Grossmont College administrators.

One theory suggests they are more prevalent in younger generations because people become more mellow as they grow older, but there is little evidence to support this claim, said Eddy. Another is that people with high-conflict personalities tend to die younger, perhaps through violence, or through unsuccessful coping behaviors such as drug use. The third theory, which Eddy favors, is that more and more children in the United States are being raised with a sense of entitlement, having been taught that they are too special, and exposure to more and more extreme behaviors by role models in the popular culture.

He characterized narcissistic personalities as those of people who are demanding, demeaning of others, and self-absorbed. Their self-assessment is “I’m very superior.” The borderline personality is one that hovers between neurosis and psychosis. One minute that person may “love you” and the next “hate you.” They can be “overly friendly” and “then angry” with “sudden mood swings.”

Typical of people with “paranoid” personalities is the feeling that “you’ll betray me.” Such people are suspicious and expect conspiracies. They will counter-attack first, Eddy said. Those who are “con artists” break rules and laws, are deceptive and enjoy hurting others, he said. The “histrionic” personalities are “superficial” and “helpless.” They tend to exaggerate, and want always to be the “center of attention.” But Eddy points out that you should never tell someone that you think he or she has a personality disorder.

Whichever personality disorder they have, high-conflict personalities have some common characteristics, according to Eddy, founder of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego and author of the book, in English and Spanish versions, It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Man aging People Who Blame Others For Everything.

High-conflict personalities often engage in all-or-nothing thinking. They have unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and they blame others, Eddy told the Grossmont administrators.

High-conflict people “tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution rather than taking time to analyze the situation, hear different points of view and consider several possible solutions,” he said. “Compromise and flexibility seem impossible to them, as though they could not survive if things did not turn out absolutely their way.”

Furthermore, they “tend to become very emotional about their points of view and often catch everyone else by surprise with their intense fear, anger, yelling or disrespect for those nearby or receiving their comments over the Internet.” They may engage in extreme behavior such as “shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, trying to have obsessive contact and keep track of your every move, or refusing any contact at all.” They may with great intensity blame “those closest to them or in authority positions over them.”

While Eddy most often deals with people involved in legal cases – as high-conflict personalities tend to be quite litigious—he said he has found that no type of organization is immune from having to deal with people displaying such characteristics.

What advice does he have for people who are confronted by people with high-conflict personalities?

Eddy responded that people should listen to their complaints with “empathy, attention and respect” a combination for which he uses the acronym E.A.R.

“Let’s say that someone verbally attacks you for not returning a phone call as quickly as he or she would have liked,” Eddy said. In reply to accusations that “you’re not doing your job,” an E.A.R. response would first indicate empathy, “Wow, I can hear how upset you are!” Next an E.A.R. response would demonstrate that the listener is paying attention. “Tell me what’s going on.” Additionally, the E.A.R listener would show respect for the complainant: “I share your concerns about this problem and respect your efforts to solve it.”

L-R Katrina VanderWoude, Grossmont College's Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bill Eddy,(center),& Debbie Yaddow, Dean of Allied Nursing and Health.

L-R Katrina VanderWoude, Grossmont College’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bill Eddy (center) & Debbie Yaddow, Dean of Allied Nursing and Health.

In printed material that may be acquired via the website www.highconflictinstitute.com , Eddy said “getting attention is one of the most important concerns of high-conflict people. They often feel ignored or disrespected and get into conflicts as a way of getting attention from those around them. Many have a history of alienating the people around them, so they look to others –professionals, friends and new acquaintances—to give them attention. Yet they rarely feel satisfied and keep trying to get more attention. If you show that you are willing to pay full attention for a little while, they often calm down.”

He added that high-conflict people “are used to being rejected, abandoned, insulted, ignored and disrespected by those around them. They are starving for empathy, attention and respect. They are looking for it anywhere they can get it. So just give it to them. It’s free and you don’t sacrifice anything. You can still set limits, give bad news, and keep a social or professional distance.”

After the high-conflict person states the problem that is upsetting him or her, an E.A. R. listener should frame a response emphasizing that the complainant has choices to make, according to Eddy: “You can choose A or B. If A, here are the consequences for that. If you choose B, here are the consequences. It is up to you.”

“You have to do this with E.A.R. – I would like to help you, but you may not know, if you do this, here is what the rules say,” or “here are the actions that I would be required to take,” said Eddy. “Speak respectfully: ‘It’s not between you and me, but you and the procedures. This is what I understand you have to do; here is what the policy says.”

It’s important with high-conflict people to lay out the rules and to set limits, Eddy said.

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Any large organization will deal with high-conflict personalities, author says