Who Are High Conflict People?

Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter define and talk about who are high conflict people. They also explore the use of EAR Statements to diffuse situations with HCPs.

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In today’s episode, we look at what makes up a high conflict person and talk about EAR Statements.

Blamers. Narcissists. Accusers. Ragers. These are all people who may fall into the category of High Conflict Personality. Most of us don’t act this way, but these people don’t often realize they’re acting this way and can’t control themselves. So should you engage? Or should you learn how to deal with them? If you guessed the latter, you’d be right.

Many people say these people are unpredictable, but Megan and Bill talk about how these people actually are very predictable… if you know what to look for. Several things can lead to people becoming HCPs. It could be genetic or could come from how they were raised. And because of this, HCPs can exist anywhere in the world. So how do you deal with them?

Well, the first step is learning to identify them. They will usually blame anyone but themselves, and they’ll never be able to connect the dots back to themselves. They rarely take responsibility for their own actions. But the feelings are so strongly in them that they can’t have their mind changed. Once you realize you’re dealing with an HCP, definitely don’t tell them they’re an HCP. It’s likely going to trigger them further.

If you’re in a situation with an HCP, try an EAR Statement.

Empathy. Attention Respect. These tools may seem opposite to how you’d normally deal with a person who is confronting you, but remember, you’re not an HCP. The HCP needs this so you can get out of the situation you’re in. It’s hard, but give it a try.

We’d love to hear your stories so we can talk through them on the show! Please visit our site and click the Submit a Question button at the top of the page. You can also send us an email at [email protected] or send us a note on any of our socials.

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Links & Other Notes

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 True Story FM. The one and only podcast dedicated to helping you identify and deal with the most damaging humans, people with high conflict personalities. I’m Megan Hunter and I’m here with my co-host, Bill Eddy.

Bill Eddy: Hi, everybody. We’re glad to have you listening.

Megan Hunter: And we’re the co-founders of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. In today’s episode, we’re going to define and talk about just who are high conflict people. But first, we have a few quick reminders. Here’s the deal. We want to hear from you. Have you dealt with a high conflict situation and blamed, experienced violence, or abuse from an HCP? Or maybe you simply dread seeing that person again, but you probably have to at home tonight, or at work tomorrow. Send us your questions, and we just might discuss them on the show. You can submit them by clicking the submit a question button on our website at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast, or emailing us at [email protected], or just drop us a note on any of our socials. You can find all the show notes and links at highconflictinstutite.com/podcast, as well. Make sure you subscribe, rate, and review, and please tell all your friends about us. Telling just one person that you liked the show and where they can find it is the best way you can help us out and help more people learn how to address high conflict people. We appreciate you so very, very much, and now on with the show. Have you ever been targeted by a blamer? Dismissed by a narcissist? Experienced extreme rath and rage? Or intensely emotional people? If so, you may have been dealing with a person with a high conflict personality. Those who don’t connect the dots back to their own behavior. We’re here to help you understand the 10% who do things that 90% of other people would never do. Now, let’s get started. So, it’s no surprise to anyone that we’re living in an ever-increasing society of conflict, and conflict is normal. We learn to manage conflict throughout life and mostly do okay with our interactions with other people. But most of us have come across a person who seemed a little outside the norm when it comes to conflict. Maybe you’ve experienced someone like this, like a blamer. Maybe you’ve been the target of blame, or had a false accusation launched against you, or public shaming on social media, or even cancellation. I’m betting you were taken by surprise and either overreacted, or just didn’t know how to react, and that’s pretty normal. It’s very typical. It’s all about the brain. What we’re talking about here are people with a high conflict personality. These are people who don’t stop themselves before doing something that 90% of other people would never do. Unconstrained texting, phone calls, emails, and social media, if you’ve experienced this, you know exactly what we’re talking about. These are folks with a high conflict personality. They’re different. However, part of the problem is that we don’t encounter them too often, depending on our situation. So we end up applying the same strategies with them, as we do with everyone else. We take a one-size fits all solution, but it doesn’t work with HCPs. Let me share a quick example with you. I was giving a training to a group of lawyers. After many years of giving this type of training to lawyers and other professionals, my experience was always positive, so I was surprised when during the break at this particular training one of the participants tapped me on the shoulder while I was getting my coffee and asked to speak to me. So I stepped aside and, you have to understand, when I am speaking or giving a training, I get a little high, because I really enjoy what I do. And so, I’m happy and think that everybody else is happy too. So combine that with being eager to answer questions and talk with people during the breaks. My expectation of the conversation was that it would be positive. Instead, this person started by saying, "I maybe the highest conflict person in the room." Because I was a little bit high, speaker high, I gave a little laugh thinking this person was joking. And that really seemed to provoke some anger with, "I am the highest conflict person in the room." All caps, exclamation mark. The face was really close to my face, and the face was red, and a lot of anger. The voice was escalated, so I froze. And I only remember being accused of wasting their time and money by attending this training. Now, after training hundreds, if not thousands, of attorneys and other professionals, I knew this wasn’t usual behavior. So, Bill, let’s dig in. You’re the guy who figured this out a couple decades ago, so you’re the one that’s uniquely qualified to help our listeners understand why and how HCPs, those with a high conflict personality, are different.

Bill Eddy: Well, they can start with that 90% you were talking about, Megan. But what we see is, they really catch people by surprise. It’s like, "Oh my goodness," we become deer in the headlights. We don’t know what to do, because we’re not used to people totally blaming us. It’s all your fault. What we’ve learned is that people like this actually have a narrow pattern of behavior, which is actually quite predictable. They’re preoccupied with blaming others. They say it’s all your fault. They take zero responsibility for a problem. They have a lot of all or nothing thinking. They often have unmanaged emotions, like you mentioned, rage. People go into a rage sometimes. And their behavior is things that sometimes isn’t 90% of people would never do. Once you recognize that pattern, you know you’re dealing with a high conflict personality. Which, as you said, is about 10% of the population. We’ve been working at this now for about 15 years. And in every setting, we see high conflict people. What we’re looking at is this pattern of behavior that you should, today, be a little more prepared for. And, of course, in this podcast we’re going to give you a lot of tips. Be prepared and recognize this pattern, blaming others, all or nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior sometimes, like sending the email that shouldn’t be sent, public shaming. And one thing to mention here is they’re everywhere. Every country and we’ve been to a lot of countries. Every continent. Every state. Every occupation. Some have a little more, some have a little less. But what we’re seeing today is they’re really everywhere. And if you start becoming aware, not only will you recognize them, but you’ll also realize you have to adapt your own approach to how to deal with them.

Megan Hunter: I see HCP as an equal opportunity. As you’re saying, we see them in every country, every income strata. It doesn’t matter the background, the race, the gender, anything. It’s equal opportunity, so you really have to be aware. Number two, you said something interesting about predictability. As we go out and train, and write our books, and talk to people, what we often hear, as you know, is that people say, "These are the most unpredictable people on earth." But as we know, once you understand their patterns of behavior, and how to respond instead of react, and respond with the right techniques, then they become, really, very, very predictable. Bill, why are they like this? And why don’t they connect the dots to their own behavior?

Bill Eddy: We’re talking about personality. Personality really, all our personalities, come from three things. One is our genetic tendencies that we have with us when we’re born. Some things that may pass through families back to the beginning of time. Also, early childhood, that’s a real big factor in how personalities are developed the first five or six years. Things may happen then. For some people, that really teach them the world isn’t a safe place. You have to fight, fight, fight in every relationship. And we especially see this in close relationships, so boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife, parent-child, close friends, close neighbors. Anybody you’re close to there’s that chance that this is going to come out. And so, what we see is they’ve got, maybe, a genetic tendency, early childhood, especially about close relationships. But the third is really the culture that you’re raised in. And so, with culture, you see, people are really absorbing a little bit what’s around them. And the example I like to give about explaining how a culture works is think about people who are born in 1920. People that were born in 1920, within a few years, are going to be facing the Great Depression. Then a few years after that going to be facing World War II, and they lived in a society where people weren’t allowed to really focus on themselves. You got to help each other out. They grew up in large families, four, six, eight, 12 kids. And so, the culture influenced people’s personality development, so they didn’t talk a lot about themselves. They knew they had to take care of each other. And they worked hard. They can have a job their whole life, and then get a pension. Many people refer to that generation as the greatest generation. But now picture, let’s say, you’re born in 1980. Well, 1980 is when the personal computer came out. You’ve got to learn how to use all of these technological devices. You’re also growing up in a family that had birth control, so you’re growing up with one or two siblings, perhaps, rather than eight or 12. And so, what you learned is you have to promote yourself. You’re not going to get a job, for sure. You’ve got to sell people on hiring you. And so, you can see the cultural influence. So today, we have to talk about ourselves more, and we spend more time alone. And so, that’s influenced personalities to some extent, but remember all three parts: genetic tendency, early childhood, as well as culture. So what we’re seeing with this, maybe, 10% of people today, really depends on the person, but it’s a combination of that. Some just were born to be nasty, and there’s a percent of people like that. Some learn that in their early childhood, because nasty things happened to them. And in today’s culture, it’s all your fault is one of the messages that we pay attention to. We go, "That’s exciting." And so, high conflict people seem to come from this combination of difficulty. And the way we manage them, we have to shift our own behavior.

Megan Hunter: Let’s talk a minute about why they do say that it’s all someone else’s fault. They seem to externalize and take a victim role. And I think that’s confusing to people, like how it feels so strongly within themselves that it is someone else’s fault.

Bill Eddy: Yeah. And that’s really psychological, and that gets into psychology. One thing we’ll talk about in these podcasts is personality disorders. Some people are really born unable to look at their own part. Some people learn that in their early childhood. And, of course, our culture reinforces not taking responsibility. So it’s really connecting the dots as an issue, and you can’t make them connect the dots. And that’s so important to know. That you don’t say, "Can’t you see? It’s really all your fault, because you did this yesterday and that’s why it happened." You don’t want to go there. What you want to do is talk about problem solving, and we’ll give you a lot of tips for that. But it’s that inability to reflect on their own behavior, and 90% of people are constantly going, "What’s my part in this problem? What should I do differently?" And that’s how human beings get along. But if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to get along well with people. One of the sad things is, high conflict people often don’t have many real friends, because they’ve alienated the people around. Because they don’t take responsibility for solving relationship problems, and they’re so preoccupied with blaming that they really push people away.

Megan Hunter: It’s sad and it’s unfortunate. I think one of the hardest things to do when dealing with HCPs is to understand that the feelings are so strong within them that they do believe it’s your fault, even when you know it’s not, or when you’re being falsely accused. They truly believe this, and no amount of explaining, arguing, or cajoling, or telling others will get them to change their mind.

Bill Eddy: It makes them more defensive.

Megan Hunter: Right.

Bill Eddy: That’s why you don’t want to point that out to them. And that’s, probably, the big red light alarm to give people right from the start is don’t tell high conflict people you think they’re high conflict people.

Megan Hunter: You and I both said that to so many people, and then they do it anyway.

Bill Eddy: Yep.

Megan Hunter: I recall someone coming to us for some advice, and some help with a divorce situation. And he asked me if I thought it was a good idea to send a bunch of books about borderline personality disorder to his soon to be ex-wife’s entire family. A copy per person. And I said, "Absolutely, don’t do that. That’s the worst idea ever. It’s going to backfire." Do you think he did it? Yes, he did. Did it backfire? Yes, it did. And he sent one to his soon to be ex-wife, as well. So he wanted her to know she had a problem, and he really wasn’t looking inward, at all. So, maybe, perhaps, he had his own HCP going on, as well. But what you’ve said is important. You have to stop yourself before you tell someone that you think they have a high conflict personality. You have to stop yourself before telling other people that you think that person has a high conflict personality. It’s really important for us to be aware of how to avoid labeling and diagnosing someone saying they have a high conflict personality, or a personality disorder. How do you avoid doing that?

Bill Eddy: Instead of doing those things to avoid, as you’re saying, what we need to do is a set of things that address their difficulties. One of the things that we’ve developed, or techniques. We’ve developed several techniques, and they’re actually, each one, pretty simple, but it takes a lot of practice. For example, one is you can calm the person down by giving them what we call an EAR statement that shows empathy, attention or respect. And so, you think of something that connects with what they’re experiencing or what they’re feeling. So you might say, "Yeah, I felt that way too sometimes," or, "I’ll pay attention, tell me more. I want to understand," or, "I really respect how hard you’ve been working on this project." By the way, you can use this tool with families. You can use it at work. You can use it with neighbors, friends, strangers. It’s just identify one thing that you can acknowledge for them is give them empathy. Yeah, I can see you’re having a hard time, or I know this is a difficult situation. It just calms people, like within 30 seconds, most of the time. Empathy, or I’ll pay attention, tell me more, or I respect this thing that you’re doing, or that you’ve done, or your commitment to solving a problem. And it tends to calm down high conflict people. You can also use it with anybody. And we’ll explain of all our techniques you can use for anybody, even children, even teenagers, and, of course, spouses. But don’t overuse these. Occasionally I find myself saying something and going, "Bill, don’t use that technique on me. I know what you’re up to." But most of the time it really helps calm people down, because you’re not fighting with them. When you think of it, this is a real easy concept. Think of what we want to do in relationships as win-win. And high conflict people think in terms of win-lose. If I don’t win this over the other person, then I’m a loser and they’re winning this over me. And then close relationships it really needs to be win-win, if anybody’s going to stick around. That’s the idea is act in a win-win way, and you often can calm down a high conflict person, by giving them empathy, attention and respect.

Megan Hunter: It’s hard to do that sometimes, because we are in that moment and we’re not expecting it. Now, sometimes after we’ve learned how to use EAR statements, and we’re at work, or we’re giving a consultation, or working with an employee, or spouse, or whomever we might be in a good state of mind and a state of awareness to use EAR statements when someone else is blaming us, or being defensive, or just being hostile in general, or undermining. It can be easier, I should say, in those situations when we have awareness and we’re being disciplined enough to use them. But what happens when we are taken by surprise? And that happens sometimes. We go to the store, and what we expect a simple interaction, and so our guard is down. And someone gets nasty with us, and we might get nasty right back. And there’s that win-lose that we’re talking about. If really becomes a matter of adapting what we do, because they can’t. That’s a really hard concept for people to understand. That they aren’t going to adapt what they do, and so we must in order to have that win-win. We’re going to slip up sometimes. I still do. It’s not a perfect science, I guess, a perfect practice. It works every time when we use it, but sometimes we forget to use it, or we just slip up, or we get a little hooked. You want to explain hooked, Bill?

Bill Eddy: What happens is, and this gets… We’ll just go a little bit into the brain here. But people have heard of the amygdala, and that’s in the middle part of your brain. The amygdala is always keeping watch for danger. And so, what happens is, when high conflict people come on, they often come on with unmanaged emotions. And those emotions hook your amygdala and, next thing you know, you’re in fight, flight or freeze mode. And so, even before you can think, because your amygdala gets a message before you’re thinking brain. And so, what happens is, you’re ready to fight. It’s like, "Wait a minute, buddy. You’re the one who’s an idiot." And the words are coming out of your mouth before you realize this is going to backfire. I need to shift myself. And, as you said, Megan, it’s really adapting our own behavior. We’re not going to control them, but by adapting our response, and by calming our own amygdala, and saying, "Hang on, it’s a high conflict person." Not now, we’re not going to fight, we’re going to give them empathy, attention and respect, which is the exact opposite of what your amygdala wants you to do. But you’ll find, it works a whole lot better, because the amygdala is a fighter, but doesn’t necessarily think things through. The amygdala doesn’t connect the dots. The amygdala just reacts. That’s why you find yourself when you’re caught by surprise, and why you want to practice. Because what’s interesting, you can train your amygdala to not react in some situations. And they actually say, there’s another little tidbit here, that the adolescent brain isn’t really fully developed until about 25. And that this part is one of the last parts to really fully develop. And that is for the teenager’s brain to be able to tell himself or herself, "This isn’t a crisis. You don’t have to go into fight, flight or freeze mode." This is a really good skill for teenagers to learn. They’ll make more mistakes, but by the time they’re 25, and in the coming world the way we have so much conflict, they’re going to do really well, if they can learn to say, "Hang on, amygdala. It’s only a high conflict person. We’re going to give them an EAR statement, and that’ll calm things down."

Megan Hunter: Yeah. It’s a simple technique, just hard to do without a lot of practice, and really recognizing when you’re hooked. Your heart rate maybe up a little bit, or your body feels tense, or you feel like arguing, or explaining a lot, or running away. Conflict avoiders. Let me go back to my story about the highest conflict person in the room that we started this episode with. Was I dealing with a high conflict situation? Was I dealing with a high conflict person? Number one. Was I being blamed? Yes. This person was blaming me for wasting their time, their money. Number two. Did the person display unmanaged emotions? Yes, indeed. The red face, there was a little spit coming out even. Yep, unmanaged emotions. Number three. Was the person displaying extreme behaviors? Yes, merely by getting in my face and yelling in front of a whole room full of other training participants. That’s rather extreme. And number four. Was the person exhibiting all or nothing thinking? And I would say, yes, because there was so much intense emotion in that moment, and it was, "You were going to do it my way or the highway." Let’s talk about how I handled it. In the moment, I was taken a little by surprise. And I was in fight or flight most definitely. My amygdala, who I have nicknamed, Miggy, was in fight or flight, and I just wasn’t able to think clearly. I just froze. And now I have to respond to someone with an EAR statement to calm them in front of a room whole of people that I’m going to train on this technique in about five minutes. Now, I’m under pressure. I’m under stress, because when that amygdala is activated, I’ll tell you, you’re really stressed and you can’t think. So you go into this primal defensive explaining arguing mode, and I’m an explainer by nature, so I explained to this person that I was repeating information from the previous days training, because there were new people in today’s training. Because that was the complaint, and they said, "Well, I don’t care about them. You should respect me. I was here yesterday, and I’m here today for all new training material." That’s when I had my ah-ha moment, and was able to pull it together enough to give an EAR statement, while looking direction into their face and using a calm tone of voice and I said, "I get now. I understand. How about this, in the next section that starts in about five minutes, I’ll be giving all new information, so I think you’re really going to like that. If you just hang on a little bit longer, I think it’ll be good." The person huffed a little bit and walked back into the training room. After the seminar, they came up and shook my hand, and with a big smile said, "Thank you." And I had nothing but empathy for the person, because I understood that they were just in that upset emotion in that moment, and couldn’t stop themselves. And it felt very normal to come and attack me. They couldn’t stop themselves. So my EAR statement worked, and it was a really good example, hopefully, to the rest of the people that were watching on how to use EAR statements to calm people. That’s an introduction to HCPs and a simple technique for interacting with them. Bill, I think you have an example from your new book, Calming Upset People With Ear, about using EAR statements.

Bill Eddy: This is an example in the workplace. This book, we’ve got over 30 examples, so I’ll just talk about this one. But what’s interesting is, on our website at highconflictinstitute.com, the most popular article is dealing with your narcissistic boss. And so, I’ll give you an example. I’m not diagnosing the boss, but they probably were a high conflict person. Which, by the way, isn’t a diagnosis, but still don’t tell anybody. In this consultation situation, this was a new boss. She’d been working at her job for many years, just a year from retirement with a full pension. Her department manager changed. The new boss, for some reason, decided to pick on Lori and criticized her frequently, including in front of other employees. She sought out consultation for tips on how to deal with the boss. She said the boss criticizes me, when she sees me. So when I come to work, I try to sneak past her office into my own office and shut the door. But I know this isn’t a longterm solution. I’d try to change jobs, but I’m just a year away from full retirement. I just want to hang on, but without the harassment. First of all, I gave Lori an EAR statement, and told her I can really understand how frustrating and scary that is, and that’s the empathy part. But then what I suggested is that she does the opposite. That she engage with the supervisor and, at the beginning of the day, don’t rush to hide in her office. Pop your head in the supervisor’s office and say, "Hi. How are you doing? I really liked that presentation you did on Friday," or, "How’s your weekend?" And give a response that shows empathy, attention and respect to her boss. And she did this, and then would say… Just take 30 seconds, or a minute, and say, "Well, I’m going to get onto work. Those tasks you need me to get done," and go off to her office without rushing or hiding. After about 30 days, about a month, she said, "Guess what, Bill? I’m now her favorite. And she doesn’t pick on me anymore, and she actually comes to me and complains about other people, which I try to be very neutral about." And she said, "But there’s another guy in the office now that she’s picking on, so I gave that guy one of your books." But the idea is, and it’s not guaranteed, we don’t guarantee any of our techniques, but they work generally more than 90% of the time. The idea was she changed her own behavior, and that was calming to her boss. And her boss liked that and her boss seemed like high conflict person from everything I was told. And high conflict people don’t get much empathy, attention and respect. So she really soaked it up and appreciated that. I like that example, because it really primarily seemed to be EAR statements that made the big difference there. Again, not guaranteed, but it works.

Megan Hunter: Yeah. And the great thing is, it costs you nothing.

Bill Eddy: Yes, yes.

Megan Hunter: And it saves so much time. Anyone who’s dealt with an HCP knows how much time can be lost in trying to figure out how to respond, or in long drawn out fights, or things like that. But a simple little EAR statement can calm the situation, calm the person, and you can move on about your day. And the great thing is, it’s way less stressful for you. So you’ve got to make sure you’re unhooked and just practice, be disciplined, to use EAR statements. That was it. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Thanks for listening through to the end. And we hope that something in this episode helps you connect the dots about high conflict people, and to also find the missing piece. We want to leave you with two simple reminders. One, when dealing with HCPs, do the opposite of what you feel like doing, and what you’re used to doing with everyone else. And two, please don’t ever tell anyone you think they are high conflict, or have a high conflict personality. It’s simple, but sometimes hard to do. In next week’s episode, we’ll talk about how to respond to HCPs in writing with a little technique that Bill created called, BIFF response. That’s B-I-F-F. It’s one of our most popular techniques. It’s about, as I said, responding in writing. Whereas, with EAR statements, we are responding in verbal situations. Hang in there, and we’ll see you next time on It’s All Your Fault. It’s All Your Fault is a production of True Story FM. Engineering by Andy Nelson, Music by Wolf Samuels, John Coggins, and Zip Moran. Find the show, show notes, and transcripts at truestory.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.