Highly Sensitive Refuge
A high conflict person screaming

HSPs, Do You Have a High Conflict Person in Your Life?

1 in 10 people are wired to cause conflict. Here’s how to deal with them — without losing your mind.

We’ve all met them. The person who can’t let anything go. The person who needs to prove that you’re wrong. The person who has explosive reactions to small things, picks fights that don’t matter, and takes two huge leaps back for every one tippy-toe toward compromise.

This is a “high conflict person,” and they create most of the world’s unnecessary drama. They may lie, shout, threaten, or even shove people. They are up to ten times more common than narcissists, and may do just as much damage. And — if you’re a sensitive person — they flood you with cortisol and may leave you shaking.

For highly sensitive people (HSPs), conflict is always difficult. We are particularly aware of people’s upset emotions, and we’re strongly affected by even small or unintentional displays of anger. But we also assume people want to solve conflicts and — once we calm down — we’re usually very good about seeing other perspectives and offering compromises.

But with our evil twin, the high conflict person, our approach only makes things worse — every effort we make to resolve things only seems to spread the fire of conflict further. This makes high conflict individuals one of the most toxic forces in our lives, and one of the hardest to escape from.

So: what is a high conflict person, how do they affect highly sensitive people, and what can you do as an HSP to get them out of your life?

What is a high conflict person?

A high conflict person is someone who consistently acts in a way that intensifies or prolongs conflict. They have a hard time compromising and are unable to see their own role in a conflict, instead seeing it as entirely the fault of others. High conflict people may not be aware of what they’re doing, but they nonetheless follow a pattern of behavior that increases, rather than resolves, conflict.

The term “high conflict person” was coined by Bill Eddy, who first built a career as a clinical social worker and therapist, and then earned his law degree and began practicing family law. At the time, Eddy says attorneys and mediators viewed some families as “high conflict” — meaning, the family had a dynamic that would make it difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to resolve their divorces or custody cases. As Eddy worked with these “high conflict” families, however, he began to realize it wasn’t usually the whole family that had an issue. It was usually one individual.

Based on his research, Eddy now estimates that high conflict people make up about 10 percent of the population.

Being a high conflict person is not a diagnosis, and there is no specific disorder that causes it. (In fact, although about half of high conflict people do have a personality disorder — typically one of the Cluster B disorders, which include narcissism and psychopathy, among others — Eddy estimates that about half do not.)

Instead, being a high conflict person is a pattern of behavior. This is actually very helpful for HSPs, because it means that you can watch for the signs and judge for yourself whether someone is high conflict — no psychology degree needed.

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The 4 Signs of a High Conflict Person

While a high conflict person’s behavior can manifest in many ways, the overall pattern is that it increases conflict and prevents resolution. However, all high conflict people tend to present the same four signs — and if you learn to look for these signs, you can usually tell if someone is high conflict after only a few interactions.

The signs of a high conflict person are:

1. Blaming others

High conflict people take disagreements personally and view them as attacks or threats by others. They are keenly aware of other people’s faults, no matter how minor they are, but they are unable to see their own faults or how they may have contributed to the conflict. As a result, they are aggressive in blaming others.

Sadly, this is especially true for the people they are close to — such as spouses, children and family members. But they will also turn this intense blame game against coworkers, authority figures, or even total strangers.

2. All-or-nothing thinking

When high conflict people become invested in an issue — even a trivial one — they are unable to see more than one acceptable outcome. They fixate on getting things to turn out absolutely the way they want them. Emotionally, they may even feel like they will not live if an issue doesn’t get the “right” outcome. To them, alternative solutions look like catastrophic failures, and they may predict extreme and unrealistic outcomes for anything but their own preferred solution.

This all-or-nothing thinking makes compromise nearly impossible, because to a high conflict person, there is no middle ground. A compromise that is, in reality, “in the middle” looks completely unfair to them, as if they are being taken advantage of.

3. Unmanaged emotions

Everyone has emotions, and HSPs can certainly relate to feeling emotional about preferences and point of view. However, many high conflict people have intense emotional reactions that can seem to come out of nowhere — and often shock other people. Their emotions are often over-the-top compared to the situation, such as screaming at a waiter who got an order wrong. Most high conflict people seem unable to control this. Their extreme emotions come out automatically and unconsciously. (Some may even be embarrassed later on.)

That doesn’t mean calm or quiet people can’t be high conflict, though. A small subset of high conflict people actually stay very calm on the outside, using emotional manipulation to twist situations around. Often, they find ways to trigger other people to get emotional, so that those individuals look like the problem. This “crazymaking” behavior can be difficult to detect or prove.

Note: There is a difference between strong emotions and unmanaged emotions. Most HSPs have strong emotions, feeling their emotions vividly and continuing to feel them for longer than others might. This is not a bad thing — it means HSPs may struggle more with negative emotions, but are also capable of great joy compared to others. Even strong emotions can be managed well, however, and HSPs are capable of developing tremendous emotional intelligence.

4. Extreme behaviors

One thing that makes high conflict people especially stand out is engaging in extreme behaviors. This may include:

  • Lying about an issue to get their way
  • Spreading lies or rumors about other people
  • Creating multiple “sock puppet” accounts online so it looks like others agree with them
  • Cutting off or endangering other vehicles in traffic
  • Spying, tracking, or obsessing over someone
  • Breaking ethical rules in business or law
  • Saying horrible things to the people they love during an argument
  • Throwing things or punching or breaking things
  • Stealing or hiding other peoples’ belongings
  • Doxing a person’s real-life personal information online
  • Threatening or actually pursuing legal action where it isn’t appropriate or necessary
  • Hitting or shoving people
  • Threatening people

A high conflict person may not act this way all the time, but slip into this mode in order to get their way, win a conflict, or punish those who criticize or disagree with them.

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How do high conflict people affect HSPs?

A high conflict person’s behavior affects everyone around them, especially those in their immediate family or their romantic partner. Engaging with them is exhausting and traumatic for anyone involved — highly sensitive or otherwise.

However, the way they affect highly sensitive people stands apart, because HSPs tend to want to help and please those around them. With high conflict people, this is a trap. A high conflict person can’t be pleased long-term, because they always feel threatened and immediately need to dig their heels into the next issue to avoid “losing.”

As a result, a highly sensitive person’s most humane trait — our outsized empathy — actually works against us with high conflict people. We will give and give and give — and concede, concede, concede — but we only get verbally abused or otherwise mistreated all the more. We’ll try to smooth things over to keep the peace (and to calm our overstimulated nerves) only for another source of chaos and stress to break out the next day — or a few minutes later.

And these conflicts may take a greater toll, in some ways, on highly sensitive people. HSPs are more strongly affected by all things in our environment — both the good and the bad — and, for us, conflict can be especially overwhelming. The emotions of even a well-intentioned person who’s upset flood our systems, and behaviors like shouting or slamming things can give us a sense of panic. Dealing with a high conflict person can deplete anyone, but it may become traumatic for HSPs even faster than for others.

How do you handle a high conflict person?

The strategies that work for dealing with normal conflict — such as listening, asking open-ended questions, talking about emotions, and offering compromise — do not work with high conflict people.

In fact, these strategies can even make things worse, because they focus the high conflict person on their emotions, which they are unable to manage.

Instead, the most important step of dealing with a high conflict person is identifying that they are high conflict in the first place, and then changing your playbook.

Specifically, you need to accept that the issue you’re arguing about it is not the source of the conflict. The source of the conflict is the high conflict individual’s personality. That’s why solving the supposed argument is either impossible or does not end the conflict. You need to treat the root cause, by tailoring your approaching to the high conflict personality itself.

There are two main ways to do this: avoiding the four things not to do, because it will lead them to escalate; and using your empathy in a slightly… different way. Let’s look at both.

The 4 “Don’ts” of Dealing with High Conflict People

In order to decrease conflict, there are four things you need to avoid when engaging with high conflict people. Eddy calls these the four “fuggedaboutits,” as in, you forget about trying them — they will only make things worse. They are:

1. Don’t try to give the high conflict person insight into their own behavior.

High conflict people lack insight into their own patterns and they are not willing to reflect on what they could have done differently. They are too preoccupied with feelings of blame and fear — and they have been locked into this cycle for so long that it’s become a fundamental part of their personality.

If you attempt to help them gain insight on themselves, no matter how gently or wisely you out it, all they will hear is an attack. They will become defensive and see you as being against them.

2. Don’t talk about the past.

High conflict people dwell in the past. In a relationship, for example, they can give you an entire history of everything their partner has done wrong since the first date. They connect together past experiences, often heavily revised, to form a narrative showing how they have been mistreated or wronged. Often, they will use these narratives to try to get people on their side (and they can be convincing). The more you bring up the past, the farther you will get from a resolution.

3. Don’t discuss emotions.

This is the opposite of the advice we usually hear. Bottling up emotions is bad, right, and talking about them helps find common ground — right? Not with high conflict people. Remember:

  • High conflict people have disproportionately intense emotions
  • They cannot manage or regulate those emotions
  • They are willing to take extreme actions when those emotions engage

So keep your conversation away from emotions — even positive ones. Don’t ask, “Don’t you feel better now?” or “How would you feel about (proposed resolution)?” That will derail things. Instead, ask what they think and present them with concrete options and solutions.

4. Don’t (ever) try telling them they have a high conflict personality.

It can feel really, really good in the moment to tell someone they are a high conflict person. But it always makes things worse.

In part, this is true for any of us — nobody likes being labeled, especially pejoratively, even if the label is accurate. But for high conflict people, it’s immediate proof that you are against them and willing to smear or insult them to get your way. They become defensive, angry, and any chance of resolution is immediately shut down.

So — what should you do instead?

How to Use ‘EAR’ Statements to Calm High Conflict People

Instead of falling for the four “don’ts,” do the one and only thing the high conflict person is not prepared for:

Give them what they need.

To be clear, I don’t mean cave in and give them whatever they want in the conflict. That won’t help them and it definitely doesn’t help you. Rather, I mean give them what they need — the thing they are missing that has made their personality this way.

That thing is compassion.

Yes, that sounds unfair — why should you be nice to the person who is causing so much trauma? But the point isn’t (just) to help them. In fact, it’s unlikely you can help them at all long-term. But you can calm them in the moment, which will allow them to move forward and resolve things. This will help them feel better, but it also gets you out of the neverending conflict loop.

The way Eddy recommends doing this is what he calls an EAR statement, short for Empathy, Attention, and Respect — the three things high conflict people are missing. High conflict people tend to come from a lifetime of hurt. Often, they’ve experienced years of rejection and criticism, or may have been an outcast. When someone shows them empathy or respect, it’s incredibly validating, and it soothes them.

The way to use an EAR statement is to keep it brief, kind (but not apologetic), and focused on the present. It can come in any of the flavors — empathy, attention, or respect. You do not have to use all three at once. Here are examples:

  • Empathy: “I can hear how upset you are, and I want to help.”
  • Attention: “Help me understand what’s happening.”
  • Respect: “I respect how hard you’ve worked toward a solution.”

When you say something like this, the high conflict person may briefly look at you, as if to see if you’re mocking them. But if you are sincere, their demeanor will often change entirely. They may calm down. Once they do, you can propose a specific, concrete step they can take to fix things. Or give them a choice of two options. More often than not, at this point they will be agreeable.

EAR statements are a different way of using your natural HSP empathy. Rather than trying to give the person what they want, or care for them, you are looking to the heart of their pain and giving them what they need. And you are doing it in a way that moves things forward to resolution.

It can be hard to deliver an EAR statement, because it means being calm and compassionate to someone who is upset and out of line. But if you can do it just once, you may find a break in the clouds. And if you do do it regularly, you may even find that your high conflict person becomes, well, easy to be around.

Importantly, most high conflict people do not enjoy the conflict they create. They may find it stressful and devastating, and they almost always feel that they are the victim. Nonetheless, they continue their high conflict behavior because it is what they’re used to — either because of the environment they grew up in or for some other reason. For a high conflict person, conflict is their natural element.

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References

  1. “What is the High Conflict Personality Theory?” It’s All Your Fault, Ep. 204.
    (Audio, Transcript.)
  2. Eddy, Bill. “4 Tips for Living With a High Conflict Person.” Psychology Today, March 31, 2020.
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/5-types-people-who-can-ruin-your-life/202003/4-tips-living-high-conflict-person
  3. Eddy, Bill. “Who Are High Conflict People?” High Conflict Institute, May 15, 2019.
    https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/hci-articles/who-are-high-conflict-people
  4. Eddy, Bill. “Calming Upset People With EAR.” Academy of Professional Family Mediators, Oct. 9, 2017.
    https://apfmnet.org/calming-upset-people-with-ear/
  5. Eddy, Bill. “Why Healing is Hard for High-Conflict People.” LinkedIn, Jan. 4, 2017.
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-healing-hard-high-conflict-people-bill-eddy/

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