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Under the best of circumstances, attempting to win an argument is fruitless.
As I’ve discussed previously, trying to persuade someone invariably causes measurable stress. Even using data to support your position works against you: The other person twists your facts to support their pre-existing belief.
Evidence-based advisors have encountered this phenomenon when they try to convince others of the merits of indexed investing. How often have you heard responses like these:
Some mutual funds outperform. Why do you assume my broker and I can’t pick them?
What about Warren Buffett?
I want an advisor who knows when to enter and exit the market.
While your chances of winning an argument on any given topic are slim, there’s one situation where it’s non-existent.
That’s when you’re confronted with a high-conflict personality.
Signs of a high-conflict person
Bill Eddy is the president of the High Conflict Institute and an authority on high-conflict personalities. To identify those people, he looks for the following behavior patterns:
- Preoccupation with blaming others;
- All-or-nothing thinking and solutions;
- Unmanaged or intense emotions; and
- Extreme behavior and/or threats.
We’ve all confronted this behavior in our personal and business lives. Nothing is ever their fault, so they take no personal accountability.
They see the world in black and white, often escalating minor disagreements into huge conflicts. A minor argument with a spouse quickly turns into the possibility of divorce.
They have poor control over their emotions and can have violent reactions to trivial incidents.
They engage in threats which are out of proportion to the event at issue. Eddy gives this example: “I will kill myself if you ever break up with me.”
High-conflict personalities are like heat-seeking missiles. They are on high alert for any opportunity to engage in confrontational behavior.
According to Eddy, about 10% of adults, “tend to have a high-conflict personality.”
It’s likely you’ve experienced this personality type in your business or personal life.
The best strategy for coping with high-conflict personalities is heightened awareness of this behavior. Don’t trivialize or rationalize it when you see it.
Once you’ve identified a high-conflict personality, if it’s possible to avoid a relationship with them, that’s often your best option.
If you must deal with this type of person, Eddy has these suggestions:
- Don’t confront them with your “diagnosis.” Doing so will trigger more conflict.
- Move the conversation from a discussion of past events to future ones. Ask questions like: “What can we do to move forward?”
- Keep the conversation focused on facts and not emotions. Expressing frustration or anger won’t ameliorate the situation.
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I would add this thought: If possible, choose the time to engage a high-conflict person. Do they seem more amenable in the morning? Does medication impact their mood?
Above all, make no effort to change their behavior. A high-conflict person is unable to control themselves. While you view their conduct as irrational, they believe they are appropriately responding to a perceived threat and simply protecting themselves.
The first step towards effectively dealing with high-conflict personalities is to identify them. As author and psychiatrist Dan Siegel noted: “Name it to tame it.”
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