Dealing with High Conflict People in the Workplace

Posted by in Career Advice

Almost everyone has been in the situation where they were forced to deal with a difficult co-worker or customer. Sometimes they are simply bullies or people prone to being passive-aggressive, but it seems that lately there has been a sharp increase in the number of people acting out high conflict behavior. Customers get upset and yell loudly at the store clerk, someone uses foul language to tell off a police officer or a co-worker threatens to ruin their boss's life.


These sort of behaviors and the people who engage in them, are considered high conflict because resolving conflict and finding a compromise is not the goal. Instead, they only serve to escalate the conflict. What makes it more confusing is that it can happen out of the blue and most high conflict people seem perfectly reasonable when you first meet them. However, when you look closely you'll see that they have a pattern of high conflict behavior and it's just a part of who they are and how they cope with stress.


It's important to recognize the warning signs in order to identify these types of high conflict people ahead of time. Once you know, or even suspect, you're dealing with someone like this, there are things you can do to minimize the impact of their behavior and diffuse the situation.


Here are the warning signs based on those listed by the High Conflict Institute:


They can't find fault in themselves. High conflict people tend to exaggerate both the positive and the negative side of any situation. Then, when things don't turn out the way they expect, they blame others and take things personally. They lash out and attack back when it's not necessary.


They need to be in control. To them, things are black and white. Their partner, co-worker, boss or whomever is either a peon or not worth dealing with. Relationships with them can be demanding and, as a result, they often look to have their emotional needs met at work and they become increasingly frustrated when they can't be met.


They can't control their emotions. They are very emotional and typically focus on the past. They go over and over any perceived slights, continuing to dwell on them for long periods of time. It's not often that you'll hear them planning for the future, unless they are plotting payback.


They exbihit intense behavior. When things don't work out as expected and when they don't get what they want, instead of backing off, they shift into overdrive. This is when the full blown meltdowns and rages happen.


If you suspect someone you work with is a high-conflict person, there are some things you can do to make it easier to deal with them. Once you know their pattern, their behavior becomes easy to predict. Although you should never confront them directly, you can:


  • Try to reach them. Connect with them by using empathy, attention and respect.

  • Help them process information, alternatives, choices or possible solutions.

  • Clarify the issue at hand, and get them to focus.

  • Draw hard lines in the sand. Make sure to maintain decorum.


For example, when a high-conflict person is acting out, you can say something like, “I can see how important this is to you. Don't worry, I care about your problem and I'll listen to your concerns to be sure that I understand them. You've done a lot to solve the problem already. Let's look at the options...”


By redirecting the focus on to problem solving rather than reacting emotionally, you'll be able to diffuse the situation and find common ground. It can be uncomfortable at first, but with a little practice it gets easier and it can make a huge difference when you have to deal with these high conflict people.


Does this remind you of a boss, co-worker or family member? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Image source: MorgueFile


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for sharing.John- Having a high conflict parent can really take a toll. I have a dear friend who has a high conflict mother and it has certainly shaped the way he interacts with women. It's good that you recognize the behavior and are able to remove yourself from the conflict.Michael - You're right that respect has to be earned and it goes both ways. In a perfect world, we wouldn't put up with people who behave badly. However, when they're your boss, you're co-worker or even your parent, you have to learn to cope.
  • John B
    John B
    I'm intrigued by the new label for a old disease...narcicism.Having grown up with a parent who was and still to this daysuffers from this disorder, I recognize this in people almost instantly. There is no winning with a person like this except for simply removing yourself from their sphere of influence completely.
  • Michael T
    Michael T
    Respect toward this type of high-conflict individual should not be given freely just for cause. Quite the contrary, respect by both individuals should be earned. A most difficult situation indeed.
  • Michael T
    Michael T
    This is good information, especially for the new engineer / employee.  Maybe this should be in an employee workshop an be acted out to help all employees.

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