It's All Your Fault season 1, episode 26 • Will Smith: High Conflict or Just Upset?

Will Smith: High Conflict or Just Upset?

The slap heard around the world. Obviously this was a high conflict situation, but was it a one-off incident resulting from a highly stressed person, aka Will Smith? Or two highly stressed people, Smith and comedian Chris Rock? Or did either of them show signs of a potential high conflict personality?

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The slap heard around the world. Obviously this was a high conflict situation, but was it a one-off incident resulting from a highly stressed person, aka Will Smith? Or two highly stressed people, Smith and comedian Chris Rock? Or did either of them show signs of a potential high conflict personality?

In this episode, Bill and Megan break it down.

  • What could have been happening just before Will walked on stage?
  • What impact did Chris Rock’s responses have on Will and on the situation?
  • Were both of them exhibiting high conflict behaviors? Is there a history on either side showing a high conflict pattern?
  • Did Chris use what ultimately was an EAR Statement?
  • Were the consequences effectuated by the Academy effective?
  • If not, what should happen to effect actual change in high conflict behavior?

This is a behind-the scenes exploration into what could have been happening with Will Smith in this situation. We don’t diagnose. We don’t blame and shame. We just explore and focus on what to do next.

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Calming Upset People with EAR

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You can also find these show notes at our site as well.

Note: We are not diagnosing anyone in our discussions, merely discussing patterns of behavior.

Episode Transcript

Megan Hunter: Welcome to, It’s All Your Fault on TruStory FM, the one and only podcast dedicated to helping you identify and deal with the most challenging situations, those involving someone who may have a high conflict personality. I’m Megan Hunter, and I’m here with my co-host, Bill Eddy.

Bill Eddy: Hi everybody.

Megan Hunter: We are the co-founders of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. In this episode, we just couldn’t resist talking about the slap heard around the world, about will Smith at the Oscars. And basically we’re going to discuss whether Will Smith may have a high conflict personality, or was this just a one off situation caused by stress or something else, or will we ever know? But first, a couple of notes. If you have a question about a high conflict situation or person, send them to [email protected], or on our website at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. You can find all the show notes and links at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast as well. Please give us a rate, a review and tell your friends, colleagues, or family about us, especially if they’re dealing with a high conflict situation. We’re very grateful. Now let’s talk high conflict. For those who don’t know, although you’ve probably been living in a cave, if you haven’t heard about the Will Smith slap that was heard around the world. There’s an incident that took place at the Academy Awards when the actor Will Smith caused quite a scene. So a quick recap, basically the comedian Chris Rock was on stage presenting an award, I think for best documentary or something like that. And he was doing what he was hired to do, which is to make a joke. So he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s also an actress and is married to actor, Will Smith. Unbeknownst to Chris Rock, the joke that he made was about her hair, her lack of hair, and he didn’t realize or know that she had a medical condition that causes her to have a lack of hair. Basically Will Smith didn’t like the joke. And even though he laughed at first, when he looked over at his wife, he stopped laughing when he noticed she wasn’t laughing and didn’t appear to be too happy about it. And he got up, went on stage and slapped Chris Rock, right on live television in front of millions of people. And he went, turned around, sat back down and Chris Rock, I think, said something else like, oh my goodness, a shocking moment. And Will Smith said, yelled to him as loud as he could, keep my wife’s name out of your bleeping mouth. And Chris Rock said, hey dude, it was just a G.I. Jane movie joke. Will responded not so great to that by saying the same statement again, keep my wife’s name out of your bleeping mouth, to which Chris Rock responded with a statement that said, I’m going to, okay. All right. So that’s what happened and it’s really caused a lot of controversy. So we’re going to talk about this today and dissect it. I was out training, giving some trainings when this was happening. It was really a great training tool because everybody had heard about this, or seen it on the Oscars. And we were able to dissect whether there might have been some high conflict attributes to this situation. So Bill, what are your thoughts?

Bill Eddy: I think a few different levels about this. One of the things that we talk about, the patterns of high conflict people is preoccupation with blaming others, all or nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior, doing things that 90% of people would never do. And we used to say, you have to see a pattern of behavior over time to see if they have high conflict behavior. But if they do repeatedly have high conflict behavior, then it must be part of their personality. Then we realized maybe five, six years ago, that some people, just one behavior can tell you, there’s a very high likelihood this is a high conflict person, because 90% of people would never do that behavior. And so it really stands out, but the people who would do that behavior are people who have done other behaviors that would support that happening. And so when this happened, I thought to myself, 90% of Oscar nominees don’t go up and slap their colleagues in the middle of a joke. And it got me thinking, now I wonder what is his ongoing pattern of behavior? And first of all, I want to say a couple things and that is, I really like Will Smith in his movies. And I’ve seen, I think all the Men in Black movies, and I saw King Richard, the one he won an award for. And so I like what I see of him, but I also know that we always have to realize that there’s a lot of unseen behavior that goes on with very charming, wonderful people, as well as our neighbors, as well as our colleagues, as well as the people we date, things like that. And so this would be the kind of situation, if I needed to deal with him, I would certainly be researching what’s the history here? Is there a pattern of things like this? And what was interesting is the way he strolled up onto the stage, looked like someone, a determined person, we didn’t know why he was suddenly on the stage. And then he slaps Chris Rock. And then I don’t think he said anything at that point, walks back down to his seat and then yells at him. And there was just something about the calm nature of going up to slap him that made me think, this is probably not the first person he’s slapped in his life. And so if I had to, for example, work on a show with him, or something like that, I’d want to know more, because we do know that some very famous, popular people can also have dangerous behavior. So it made me curious to look for patterns, but also I want to say don’t make assumptions. And even if there are patterns that it doesn’t mean you’re going to try to change the person, you’re going to change how you deal with the person. So for example, I probably, if I was working with him, would not make any jokes just to be safe.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. Interesting. So I did do a little background investigation to see if there had been any history of this. And of course, what you read in the media might not be absolutely true. I haven’t seen evidence, but what I did read was that there’d been at least one incident where he’d slapped a member of the paparazzi who was driving him crazy, got under his skin a little bit. And it turns out this photographer was known, a known instigator and really like to get into the skin of public figures. So I think probably if this is all true, that Will did slap him, he might have been provoked at. And I’m not sure, but again, 90% of other actors probably didn’t slap this photographer. And then that was the only incident of physical violence I found. But I guess something came out about his wife saying that she really did not want to marry him and really cried a lot on the day she got married to him. And it sounded almost like a forced wedding that because she was pregnant, her parents wanted her to get married. Now, again, I don’t have any evidence of this, it’s just what we’ve read in the media. So, maybe there’s something there. We don’t know for sure.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. I think the big thing talking about this is it’s always fun to gossip about movie stars and stuff like that. But I think it’s helpful as a public example of something that usually people don’t know, because you don’t see public behavior. And so it’s a reminder that when you work with people, when you date people, et cetera, that you may not know really what’s hidden behind the very friendly, charming surface. And some people really aren’t who they seem on the surface. He’s certainly gotten this far. So my guess is, he’s generally pretty reasonable person, but people may have a short temper and that may become dangerous at some points. And so the key thing about what to do once you spot a potential pattern of high conflict behavior is to adapt what you do. Don’t label them. Don’t give them a diagnosis publicly, and we’re not doing that, but also recognize this might be someone with a high conflict pattern of behavior, which by the way, is not a diagnosis. And therefore I’m going to adapt what I do. First of all, I’m not going to focus on the past. I’m not going to say, hey, Will, what happened that night? I’m going to steer clear of that, but also not try to look for insight with a person that may be a high conflict person, because that seems to be one of the areas that triggers unnecessarily and instead look at what are your choices? What can you do now? If a conflict arose with someone you had concerns about, focus on let’s look at what we can do now rather than challenging their past behavior. Also not trying to emotionally challenge them, because what we find is high conflict people often have a harder time managing their emotions. And so you don’t want to focus on emotions, because then they’re more at risk of having negative emotions and attaching them to you. So we talk about four things not to do. Don’t try to give them insight into themselves. Don’t focus on the past, don’t have emotional confrontations, or really focus on emotions, really try to focus on thinking and doing. And, of course, don’t label them as having a personality disorder, or high conflict personality. And because if you’re in a relationship with someone like that, you’re really preparing yourself to be the recipient or the target of blame of their anger for quite a long time, months, sometimes years. Now I want to make sure we get to Chris Rock.

Megan Hunter: Yeah, that’s where I was headed next. So, it’s one thing to, if you had to work with an individual like this on a future project, you would have that time to think about what would I do if I were in a situation like this? But what do you do? When we’re in a situation in the moment, that’s what’s really how hard to predict what you would do, because no one in the world would’ve predicted that Will Smith would come on stage and slap Chris Rock. So, Chris Rock handled it incredibly, incredibly well. To be on live television in front of so many people. I would imagine that some might have either run away, or some might have hit back, or pushed back, or called security. And instead what I observed was Chris Rock calming the whole situation. So, he made two statements after Will Smith shouted at him from his seat.

Bill Eddy: He made a statement that Will Smith just some ex would’ve hit me.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. And then when Will Smith said, keep my wife’s name out of your mouth, then he made a joke. So that was a joke about the movie, which I think in that moment, there was a spectacular that he could even think of a joke, because of lot of people would probably be in fight or flight, and he was at least able to make a joke. However, that didn’t seem to calm Will down.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. And then I guess he said again, the same statement, Will Smith said, and then Chris Rock calmly and seeming with empathy said, I’m going to. Okay.

Megan Hunter: Right. It was exactly that. So the first response was a G.I. Jane joke about the movie. And the second was, I’m going to. Okay. And I watched the video a couple times. And I noticed that his body and his face were turned directly to Will. He was looking at him right in his eyes. And he had a very calm tone of voice, and he said, I’m going to. Okay. And it was said with a slight tinge of firmness as well, which I was very impressed with. So let’s break down these two responses. The first one was a joke and it didn’t get Will to calm. Instead he said the same thing again. So why didn’t that work so well?

Bill Eddy: Well, it really varies. We teach giving people ear statements, that show empathy, attention and respect in words, in your tone of voice, face, hand gestures, all of that. And that when someone’s angry with you, you can give them an ear statement. And a lot of people say, I shouldn’t have to, if they’re being rude or nasty to me, I should be able to be rude and nasty back to them. And I’ll say, well, it’s always up to you. But the whole situation may be much different if you’re able to not just mirror that bad behavior and to stay with empathy, attention, respect with your words and your body language. And it seems like what he said the first time was trying to be humorous to deflect it and Will Smith wasn’t ready for any more humor. And that’s when he said, keep my wife’s name out of your effing mouth, or whatever

Megan Hunter: That was it. That was exactly it.

Bill Eddy: Yes. And then he just seriously, like you said, looked him in the eyes and said, I’m going to. Okay. And that’s exactly how you can deliver an ear statement is with sincerity, with empathy, I’m with you on this. Got it.

Megan Hunter: Instead of defending himself, or saying you piece of crap, why’d you do this?

Bill Eddy: Exactly, exactly. And people would’ve totally understood. If he had hauled off and just slapped him right back, if he had said something really nasty. And he just demonstrated what we teach. We should probably try to get that clip for our trainings, is how to respond to high [crosstalk 00:16:36].

Megan Hunter: Under pressure.

Bill Eddy: … under pressure to high conflict behavior. And how an ear statement in word and body language can really calm down a situation. And it did calm down the whole room. And I think Chris Rock gets a lot of credit and it made me think, I’ll bet he might not be a high conflict person. He might be someone who’s able to not get hooked into, I’ve got to prove a point and I’ve got to defend this and that. Because one of the key things about dealing with high conflict people is realizing you don’t need to defend yourself because it’s not about you. When someone acts in an outrageous manner towards you, you have to physically protect yourself. So if he stayed there and kept hitting him like a punching bag, you want to just get out of there. That’s the number one priority. But otherwise by calming yourself, the other person is going to calm down 90% of the time. And that’s what we’ve seen. And that’s how that whole scene also calmed down, because it was when Will Smith was back in his seat that he yelled that same phrase two times. And so when the second time Chris Rock looks at him with empathy and sincerity and says, I’m going to. Okay. It satisfied the moment. With that many people watching it, would’ve been so easy for him to yell something back to escalate, to run off the stage, to ask for the police or something. And instead he just calmed the moment. And that’s so important that anybody can try to calm the moment with someone who’s being acting high conflict. Whether he has a pattern of that, we still don’t know, but acting high conflict and calming the moment is possible. And it takes a while for us to teach people this, because they go, well, that’s not right, or that’s not fair, whatever. But when someone’s that extreme, it’s not about you. You want to figure out how do I calm this moment rather than how do I teach the other person a lesson, which is what you see in TV, in the movies, but in real life that doesn’t usually work.

Megan Hunter: Doesn’t work at all. All right. So now let’s shift into what happened next. Shortly thereafter, Will Smith received the Oscar for best actor. Now I’ve heard some say that he should not have received it. He should have been taken out right away. And from what I’ve read, he was asked to leave and refused to leave. So let’s break that down a little bit. Do you suppose he was just so hopped up still at that point that he just said I’m not leaving.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. I didn’t hear about that he was asked to leave. I don’t know if an official or police or security or whatever, but my sense was that the whole world, including Chris Rock and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, that it just happened, and it was so shocking and out of the ordinary that the only thing to do was carry on. And I think Will Smith just carried on, and his wife just carried on, and Chris Rock just carried on, and the audience just carried on. And I remember thinking, and I go, other people wonder this too, was that an act? And I was thinking, it didn’t have the vibe of an act and it didn’t fit in anything. And I thought, I think that was real and that’s going to have repercussions, but I don’t know what they are, but that’s what happens when you’re shocked with high conflict behavior. You’re so thrown off by it that you’re immobilized. And if you can give an ear statement, you might give an ear statement. And if the first doesn’t work, you give a second. And the second doesn’t work, you try to change the subject or change the situation. I think it just shocks people. And frankly, part of what we teach, I think, is you want to respond as quickly as you can within ear statement. And that unfortunately, nowadays you need to be prepared for things like this to happen more often. And I’ve been flying a lot lately, and I’m so glad to say I haven’t seen any passenger punch a flight attendant, but I’ve been concerned because you see that on TV. Now you see this at the Oscars, that public violence seems to be on rise. And it’s not a good thing, I think has a lot to do with the pandemic, people being cooped up, but cooped up with television sets, showing them people punching out people in public. And unfortunately you get more of what you pay attention to.

Megan Hunter: Yeah, well, we’re hearing everywhere we go that, and from people calling our company and asking for help, is that conflict is really on the rise and particularly in, well, yeah, we’ve all seen it on flights on the news, but also in the education arena, just everywhere. And last week I was, I think I took about five or six different flights in the last two weeks. And I didn’t see any unruly behavior, thankfully. However, I was having lunch in Boulder, Colorado, and a customer went up to the counter and just really yelled loudly at the staff, it was at a pizza place, very upset that someone had upset his wife and he was in the same situation. You offended my wife and she’s blah, blah, blah, and just yelled and yelled. And I was turning around and straining my ear to hear what the response was, but eventually they were able to calm him and he went away. But it’s, I guess, unfortunately, maybe not as unusual to see that kind of behavior now. So another question about, if it is true that he was asked to leave the stage and didn’t, what do you think, we talk a lot about consequences in our work, and it seemed like his bad behavior was validated by being allowed to stay, get to dictate those terms if that is indeed what happened. And then to win the Oscar a few minutes later and be allowed to come on the stage after assaulting someone, and to be able to make a speech. And I recall reading a statement by OJ Simpson who said, look, if I’d have done this, I would’ve been, I think he said he’d been put in prison for life, because of his terms of his parole, or that kind of thing. So, one guy would go to prison for life. The other guy would [crosstalk 00:24:02].

Bill Eddy: Get an Oscar.

Megan Hunter: Win an Oscar and get to make a speech.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. Well, I think we talk a lot about consequences, and I think there absolutely needed to be consequences. I don’t know if it meant he needed not to get his Oscar, or he had to leave at the time, but something needed to happen. And what’s interesting is lot of my thinking in workplace, especially high conflict situations, is coaching, is somebody needs to be, and that’s what I thought to myself, he probably has a high conflict pattern and needs to be coached on it. And that would be the ideal outcome. This behavior change would come out of this situation. I was in a sense saddened to see that being banned from the Academy for 10 years, or volunteering to drop out of the academy. We think of that as logical consequence is, but it doesn’t change behavior. And I think we have to see that as such a high priority today, because you can’t just shut down everybody who’s had a bad behavior moment, or maybe even has a pattern of bad behavior. The future of society needs to be that people improve their behavior. And to me, that would’ve been, if they said, okay, he’s got to go to anger management for six months. That may be what really is what he needs, because people around him, he is not going to act different with, whatever his pattern of behavior. I think he’s, I don’t remember his age. He’s in his fifties, I think.

Megan Hunter: Yeah, I think so.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. He’s not going to just stop like a switch doing things like that if he’s got a pattern. And again, I keep saying if, if he does, but in my mind that really would’ve been the ideal. And for him to say, yes, I need help and I’m going to go get it.

Megan Hunter: And maybe he did. I read a quote that’s in front of me, I think it was from his Oscars, his acceptance speech, where he said, "In this time, in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling me to do and be in this world." And he also references Richard Williams from the movie who was a fierce defender of his family. So he likened himself to Richard Williams. So I don’t know if maybe that second statement about it this time in my life, this moment I’m overwhelmed and what I’m to be in doing this world, maybe he’s going through something. So if we look at this from, if we could get inside Will’s head and his heart, in those moments, none of us will ever know truly what he was feeling, but I think he was probably feeling some sense of out of control.

Bill Eddy: Yeah.

Megan Hunter: And that’s not a good feeling.

Bill Eddy: Well, what’s interesting is someone like him, the sense I gotten from his speech as well, and his movie career is, my sense is he’s someone who’s very much in control and maybe more tightly in control than the average person. And so when something like this happens, it’s like, it’s a little explosion. And sometimes people who are too tightly controlled have these little explosions, but also that moment of embarrassment and humiliation, my sense is that he realized that there’s something really, this was a bad thing to do, and something’s going to come down because of it. On the other hand, I think that he’s a pretty in-touch person. And I think he realized I got to do something here. My feeling, especially in, and I keep thinking this as a workplace conflict. And I don’t know if Oscars is rightfully called a workplace, but that in many ways, I’ve been asked, consulted with high tech companies and such, should we fire this employee because they did this thing? And this thing itself wasn’t, it was bad, but wasn’t like this, no one got injured, but is there a pattern of behavior? And if there is, can you change that pattern of behavior with coaching, and then you’ll know whether you need to fire them. Now, if he went in an extended fist fight there, then that just maybe grounds for firing right there. But in a way to me, someone that’s at that stage with that exceptional behavior, give them some coaching, see if they can change and then decide, and it doesn’t have to be long. It can be three to six to eight sessions of coaching. I might plug that we have new ways for work coaching as a method we develop for people who need to get back on track. And that some you see get back on track and some don’t. And so that’s better than just go to the full punishment 10 year exclusion. And that may be appropriate too, but I would hope for our future since we’re influencing behavior through our media in negative ways, and people are acting worse, as we’ve been saying, we also need to find ways to change behavior for the better. And I want to get that in there.

Megan Hunter: Yep. Well, good. Well, I think wrapping this up, it’s clear that this was not his best moment and it really, it was a really great moment for Chris Rock in terms of how he responded to it and how he handled it, both in the moment and afterwards. There was no bad mouthing Will Smith. And I think he was a real class act. And I think, yeah, I read he had some struggles as a young person with his own anger. So, he may have some pretty good empathy for Will. I don’t know that, but perhaps it’s there Next week, you’ll want to join us as we talk to a special guest, Amanda Smith of Hope for BPD, who is the author of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Wellness Planner, and The Borderline Personality Disorder Wellness Planner. She’s just a fantastic human. And she’ll be talking about borderline personality disorder, both for those who struggle with it, and also separately then for their family members who really need to learn the skills we talk about a lot, which one of them is what you’ve heard Bill say many times, calming upset people with an ear statement, which by the way, we’ll have the link to that book in the show notes. So, we’ll look forward to seeing you next week. And if you have any questions about anything to do with high conflict, just send them to [email protected], or submit them to highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. Tell all your friends about us. And we’d be grateful if you’d leave a review wherever you listen to us. Until next week, have a great one. And keep learning about high conflict behavior, so you can avoid it in your life or manage it or influence it. It’s All Your Fault, is a protection of TruStory FM. Engineering by Andy Nelson, music by Wolf Samuels, John Coggins, and Ziv Moran. Find the show, show notes and transcripts at trustory.fm, or highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, please consider doing that for our show.

Each week, Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter will be exploring the five types of people who can ruin your life — people with high conflict personalities — and how they weave themselves into our lives in romance, at work, next door, at school, places of worship, and just about everywhere, causing chaos, exhaustion, and dread for everyone else.

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Bill Eddy is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.

Bill Zoom
Megan Zoom

Megan Hunter, MBA

Megan Hunter is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. Within her role at HCI, she also serves as a leading expert in high conflict personalities in all settings, focusing primarily on the workplace, customer service, government/public service, ombuds, and religious organizations. Her degrees in business and economics combined with her years of experience in the legal arena are a valuable blend for many conflict settings.

Bill Zoom

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Bill Eddy is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.

Megan Zoom

Megan Hunter, MBA

Megan Hunter is HCI’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. Within her role at HCI, she also serves as a leading expert in high conflict personalities in all settings, focusing primarily on the workplace, customer service, government/public service, ombuds, and religious organizations. Her degrees in business and economics combined with her years of experience in the legal arena are a valuable blend for many conflict settings.