© 2014 by Bill Eddy
How many times have you tried to get someone to look at their past behavior, to admit they acted badly and to agree to change their future behavior? Most likely you were frustrated in these efforts and pushed them harder to get your points across. Or you may have given up, visibly showing your irritation with them. This frequently occurs in the workplace, in families and in the efforts of conflict resolution professionals.
This article explains why I think you need to FORGETABOUDIT! Instead, I will suggest some alternative approaches that may actually influence such a person in a positive way.
High-conflict people (HCPs) tend to act in a self-defeating way in relationships, yet they are unaware that their own behavior is the cause of many of their own problems. They would clearly benefit from changing or stopping their self-defeating behavior, but they are highly resistant to (1) self-reflection and (2) change. These are two of the key characteristics of high-conflict people and why they increase their relationship conflicts rather than managing or resolving them.
Therefore, your efforts to lead them to insight are more likely to increase their defensiveness and to harm your relationship with them – as well as leaving you frustrated and wasting your time and energy. Instead of blaming them for being this way, it helps to understand why this occurs.
The Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking
HCPs frequently feel helpless, vulnerable and weak. Depending on which type of high-conflict personality they have, they may be preoccupied with fears of being abandoned, disrespected, dominated, ignored or betrayed. (For more on these high-conflict personality types, see my book It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything at www.UnhookedBooks.com.) This is their Mistaken Assessment of Danger – the beginning of the Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking.
The second step in the cycle is that they therefore engage in Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive. This makes sense, if someone feels constantly in danger from the people around them. But if they were mistaken, this over-protective defensive behavior would threaten the people around them, who often do start to feel like abandoning, disrespecting, dominating, ignoring or betraying them – to protect themselves. In other words, their behavior evokes in others the very actions they were trying to avoid in their relationships – whether they are simply work relationships or might be deep love relationships.
This response in others tends to trigger an intense desire to give HCPs Negative Feedback. But however well-intentioned, this Negative Feedback simply increases the HCP’s Mistaken Assessment of Danger – their sense of being abandoned, disrespected, dominated, ignored or betrayed. This is why Negative Feedback doesn’t work with HCPs – it feeds the Cycle, rather than stopping it.
I wanted to explain this Cycle of High-Conflict Thinking, to reinforce why you should not try to give them insight about their past behavior. Just FORGETABOUDIT when you find yourself thinking: “I have to make him see what he’s doing wrong…” Or: “I have to make her understand…” Or: “I’m going to ask him what he hopes to accomplish by this…” Or: “I’m going to point out the futility of her approach…” FORGETABOUDIT!
Instead, I would suggest a few simple responses that can be much more helpful.
Give the Person Some EAR
While this may feel hard to do at the moment, it often helps to give the person a statement showing Empathy, Attention and/or Respect. “I can see how frustrating this situation might be for you.” “I’d like to help you solve this problem.” “I know this process can be confusing.” “I realize how important these decisions are for you.”
Focus on acknowledging how they feel, rather than criticizing how they feel or are acting. Then, quickly focus on the future.
Focus on Future Choices
You might give the person some information: “You’ve got a couple options that I can see. Would you like to know what they are?” Or: “While I can’t do what you’re suggesting, how I can help you today is to do such-and-such…” Or: “When other people have been in a similar situation, some have done A…, some have done B… and some have done C. Do any of those options give you some ideas of what you might try next?” “Remember, it’s totally up to you.”
Explain Positive and Negative Consequences
Then, it can help to inform them of the possible consequences of their choices. “People who have chosen to do such-and-such have often been able to get past the situation and left their frustrations behind. However, those who have done this other approach have often found themselves getting disciplined by the company.” By explaining both positive and negative consequences, if often helps the person realize there is a cost or benefit to their future behavior. Surprisingly, HCPs are often just reacting to situations and not thinking about the future consequences at all. However, rather than criticizing them or pointing out this fact, it’s much more helpful to just focus on telling them about what might happen in the future.
Let it Go
Lastly, let it go. You’ve given some Empathy, Attention and/or Respect. You’ve given some tips about their choices and consequences. Now, let it go. Say to them: “It’s up to you.”
Then, tell yourself: “I know I can’t control their behavior. But I can control my response to their behavior.” If you are a supervisor in the workplace, you may have to reassign or discipline or fire the employee, if he or she continues to act badly. But at least you have not made the situation worse, by taking this approach. If you are a family member or friend, at least you have not damaged your relationship or made it worse, by taking this approach. And your own life will be less stressful because of the energy and frustration that you will have avoided when you just FORGETABOUDIT!
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator. He is the co-founder of High Conflict Institute, which provides training and consultation for dealing with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for managing high-conflict people in any situation. For more information on managing high-conflict people and situations in family law visit us at www.HighConflictInstitute.com and www.NewWays4Families.com.