“He’s such a high conflict personality that I’m scared to disagree with him.” “She’s high conflict and I don’t think any of these approaches will work with her.” “How can we best deal with high conflict personalities in the workplace?” “I’ve been labeled ‘high conflict’ and I’m blamed for starting every argument.” “I’m a mediator and I’d like to know how to prevent high conflict clients from derailing agreements.”
These are some of the comments and questions I’ve heard in conflict resolution workshops and from clients in recent months. The underlying need in each of these is not unreasonable. And yet when I hear questions and comments like these, I often cringe inwardly.
I cringe because I’m hearing the label “high conflict” used far too frequently to describe someone who’s a challenge. Because it’s too easy to throw out a label in order to deflect one’s own contribution. Because it pains me to see people pop-psych each other into boxes. And because putting people in boxes inevitably makes them want to fight their way out, escalating the conflict further.
I do not quibble with the idea that there are high conflict people. I believe, however, that there are far fewer high conflict personalities than the now-common use of the term suggests. I quibble with the gratuitous use of the term to equate someone who disagrees strongly, emotionally, and even frequently with having a personality disorder.
Diagnosis of a personality disorder is a mental health diagnosis made by a trained mental health professional in cases with a pervasive pattern of instability and chaos in personal relationships, turbulent emotions, distorted self-image, and impulsive and risky behavior.
If you’re not a trained mental health professional, I challenge you to choose your labels and examine your assumptions very carefully. As psychologist Jeffrey Kottler has said, “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”
Here are some ways I see the “high conflict” label misused and abused:
High conflict or higher conflict?
If you are uncomfortable in the midst of conflict, prefer to avoid conflict, or are easily flustered by the strong emotions in some conflict, it may be tempting to think of the other person as “high conflict.” Compared to you, they are. Your use of the label is a kind of shorthand you’re employing to explain the gap between how they act and what you prefer.
But that’s unfair, my friend. It’s more accurate to say, “They’re more comfortable in conflict than I am,” or “I’m uncomfortable in conflict and they’re not,” or “I feel distressed when you argue with me because I’m not good at handling it,” or “Conflict feels like turbulence to me. I wish you felt a little less comfortable in it and I a bit more.”
The point in short: Don’t use a label destined to create pain and resistance as a replacement for descriptive language that does a better job of highlighting preference or stylistic differences.
High conflict or your need to blame?
The value judgment embedded in the term “high conflict” is that the person bearing the label is more at fault for the escalation of the conflict. That’s also unfair, at least some (most?) of the time.
While it seems true that someone who is comfortable in the midst of conflict may be more likely to confront or escalate conflict (really, you’ve not lived until you’ve been in a room with a bunch of mediators who disagree about something), the opposite is not true. Someone who is uncomfortable in conflict is not necessarily less likely to cause or escalate conflict.
For instance: Someone who chooses not to confront can still create and escalate conflict. Someone who regularly avoids conflict can contribute to the Spiral of Silence. My grad students can tell you that choosing to look away doesn’t mean there is no conflict. And Making nice isn’t the same as resolving a conflict.
The point in short: If you deploy the “high conflict” label as a way to blameshift, it’s time for the kind of self-awareness you want your “high conflict” sparring partner to have.
High conflict or your low understanding?
Any mediator worth their salt will tell you that lack of acknowledgement or understanding about something important can create and escalate conflict. So, when you’re experiencing big anger from someone, don’t assume it’s because they’re broken. Anger, as I say in my latest book, The Conflict Pivot, is a hint that something important has been bruised (deliberately or, more often, inadvertently).
The point in short: Instead of gratuitous labeling, make sure you’ve paid attention to why they’re so ticked off. Really attend to it, meaningfully.
High conflict or your limited skills?
I’m sorry to have to be the one to say this: Sometimes it’s tempting to blame a person’s apparent “high conflict personality” instead of acknowledging that your conflict resolution skills are not up to muster.
They’re too loud? They’re too emotionally emotive? They fly off the handle too easily? They won’t calm down? They’re at the center of repeated conflicts in your workplace team? Every one of these can be understood as something other than “high conflict,” and good use of good conflict resolution skills can bring relief to each.
And a special note to mediators: This is why 40 hours of mediation training is called “basic.” It’s not enough training for you to handle difficult matters elegantly and without having to resort to label-calling.
The paradox of “high conflict”
One reader wrote to me about being cast as “high conflict.” In the email exchange she said, “I guess another paradox is that while being cast as the one who ‘likes a fight,’ I also found myself avoiding bringing up things or pushing things that bothered me due to not wanting to be cast in this way. Frequently ‘backing down,’…putting up with a lot more hostility than I should have because I didn’t want to fight.”
This just breaks my heart, my friends. When we label someone “high conflict” because of our own needs, our own lack of skill, our own egos, we can inadvertently create a situation where they feel unable to speak up about important matters.
That’s not the stuff of good working or personal relationships. It’s the stuff of conflict spirals that can ultimately tear relationships asunder.
So consider this article a call to stop using the label “high conflict” most of the time. Consider it a challenge to stop using someone else’s flaws as a weapon to soothe your own ego and distract from what you’ve contributed to the conflict. Consider it a challenge to professional conflict resolvers (mediators, conflict management coaches, conflict resolution trainers, and the like) to develop better skills so that you’re not tempted to use a term like “high conflict” when it’s more about your skill than their personality.
Consider this article a call to stop judging others’ behavior harshly and instead look for the equal human in front of you.