For those of you who know me well, you will remember that a couple of years ago I achieved certification in “Dealing with High Conflict People in Legal Disputes”. I like to talk about this often because prior to undertaking this study, High Conflict People (HCP’s) scared me very, very, very much. Now they only scare me ‘very much’ which, I think you will agree, is an advance on my previous position.
Recently, in an effort to quell my remaining fears I attended a second course run by the High Conflict Institute – this time focusing on HCP’s in the workplace. It turns out there is a lot of interest in how to manage HCP’s across the board – I was in good company with a County Court Judge, the current President of the Law Institute of Victoria, and a range of other leaders, managers, lawyers, and dispute resolution practitioners – all very keen to increase their capacity to manage really, really difficult people.
So, who are these HCP’s? There are 4 key characteristics of the HCP:
• Preoccupation with blaming others (victim mentality)
• All-or-nothing thinking
• Unmanaged emotions
• Extreme behaviours
HCP’s have very little insight into their behaviours and though they don’t all have Personality Disorders, most of them do. Therefore, HCP’s tend to fall into the main five PD categories; narcissist; borderline; paranoid; antisocial; and histrionic. People with PD’s tend to have life long preoccupations with certain fears such as:
• Being treated as inferior (Narcissist)
• Being abandoned (Borderline)
• Being betrayed (Paranoid)
• Being dominated (Antisocial)
• Being ignored (Histrionic)
And they frequently distort events to match this inner reality by:
• Using all or nothing thinking
• Jumping to conclusions
• Emotional reasoning (relying on feelings rather than facts)
• Exaggerated fears
• Mind reading
• Tunnel vision
• Wishful thinking
Lastly, HCP’s focus on the past; conflict gives their lives meaning and without it, they end up feeling a little lost in the world and a little bit empty on the inside.
I know. I know! I’ve just described your ex-partner, your current boss and probably several of your family members right?
Wrong! HCP’s seem like they are everywhere but most people are only likely to know (or know of) two or three at any given time.The reason they seem so familiar to us is because they are an exaggerated version of our worst traits. We recognise ourselves and others in them so they feel familiar, but the difference is pretty stark in reality. For example, say a normal person feels let down by their lawyer, they might make a complaint, even potentially sue if they can. Ever seen Cape Fear? Well, Max Cady is the HCP version of a normal person in the same situation. Scary huh?
Unlike most people, lawyers actually are exposed to HCP’s all day, every day. They are the bread and butter of our existence. In that sense, we shouldn’t be at all frightened of them. We should be excessively grateful to them really. And you would think that our exposure to HCP’s would make us exceptionally good at managing difficult people but, in practice, we are actually less equipped than most people. Firstly, we are trained to rely heavily on logic, reasoning, objectivity and strict ethical codes of conduct. This means we often just don’t relate to the HCP. They seem ‘totally bizarre’ to us; overly emotional, irrational, disingenuous and sometimes straight psychopathic. Secondly, seen one HCP, seen them all! After awhile the lawyer becomes desensitised to the HCP and simply can’t be bothered putting in the extra effort. Thirdly, HCP’s are supremely difficult to get along with. They are the people everyone tries to avoid. If you are engaging with someone and you have an irresistible urge to suddenly board a plane to Cuba, you have probably met up with an HCP. No, you’re not weird. It’s actually a healthy response. But it’s a response that you unfortunately need to override if you are a lawyer and you’re going to deal with the HCP’s you come across effectively.
You can’t manage an HCP from Cuba so how do you resist the urge to run when you come across one? How do you override the confusion, anxiety, anger, and often repulsion you feel when they are acting out? Well, oddly, the first step is in trying just that little bit harder to understand the fears that drive them. Every one of us knows what it feels like to feel inferior, abandoned, betrayed, dominated or ignored. It’s just a matter of tapping into your own memories to recall what that feeling is like. Once you have located a memory then you have to essentially multiply that feeling by about 1000 because HCP’s don’t just carry these fears, they carry these fears to the extreme. Secondly, you need to recall times where you have behaved badly. Whilst your poor behaviour might not have occurred at quite the rate of an HCP, or even reached those extremes, it essentially comes from the same place. Since we have all behaved poorly enough at times to know what it is like to hurt another, or to otherwise be generally unhelpful or inconsiderate, we should be able to empathise with other people who act poorly; even if it is often and even if it is extreme.
I like to call this process, “making friends with your inner HCP”. (After all, one of the sure signs of an HCP is a complete denial of any of the traits that are typically associated with HCP’s – and you don’t want to be that person, right?)
Making friends with their inner HCP is probably the step that lawyers miss most and yet it is the first essential step to managing HCP’s.
In essence, managing an HCP effectively requires four rules of engagement:
• Don’t run. Rather, put your energy into connecting with them. You need to give them attention, respect and empathy if you want to go ahead with the next step;
• Join with them in the task of solving their problem by analyzing options with them;
• Always maintain a healthy skepticism about absolutely everything they say (the last thing you want to do is be drawn into their chaos by believing in their madness) and you need to help them reality test their ideas because reality testing is not their forte;
• Educate them about the realistic consequences of their behavior. HCP’s find it difficult to anticipate what would be reasonably foreseeable consequences to anyone else.
If you cannot achieve the first step (giving the HCP the attention, respect and empathy that they crave) you are going to go nowhere fast which is why it is more important than ever to make friends with your inner HCP.
Managing HCP’s is a complex skill that cannot be learned overnight. Hopefully this post gives you a basic understanding of what it involves, and certainly gives you enough information to get you through your next contact with an HCP client. A word of warning though: there are some HCP’s that you will never be able to get through to. Can you imagine negotiation with Max Cady? I think you know what I’m talking about! So, if that happens to you, don’t be too hard on yourself. I will look forward to receiving your postcard from Cuba, oh, and ¡a la tercera va la vencida!