Frequently in family law cases (or in any legal dispute) one of the individuals involved exhibits a pattern of high-conflict behavior. High-conflict people (HCPs) can be very difficult to work with because of how they approach problems.

How to spot high-conflict people

According to the High Conflict Institute, a training and consulting firm that helps individuals learn how to handle relationships with high-conflict people, HCPs have a pattern of behavior that includes the following.

  • Blaming others. HCPs can hold intense blame for people who are close to them or people who are in positions of authority. HCPs see no problems with their own behavior – it’s always someone else’s fault.
  • All-or-nothing thinking. HCPs often can see only one solution to a problem. They are incapable of considering other possibilities. Compromise and flexibility are not an option.
  • Unmanaged emotions. HCPs can become extremely emotional about their side of the argument. The intensity of their fear, anger or disrespect is often surprising or shocking.
  • Extreme behaviors. HCPs frequently use extreme behavior, whether it’s in person or in writing. This can include shoving, hitting, spreading lies, obsessive contact, or no contact at all.

High-conflict personality is NOT a mental health diagnosis, according to the High Conflict Institute. HCP is only a description of behavior. Use HCP only as a “private working theory,” HCI advises. Do not assume you are correct in identifying the other person as HCP, and do not tell the other person.

Your focus should be on learning how to manage your response to the high-conflict individual.

How to manage the relationship

Here are four options for managing relationships with high-conflict people, according to the High Conflict Institute.

  • Connect with the person. Use empathy, attention and/or respect, unless it is unsafe to connect. If it is unsafe, stay away from the person.
  • Analyze your options for dealing with this person. Write a list of options and decide which approach is the most realistic. Sometimes, phasing the person out of your life is the best alternative.
  • Respond to hostility or misinformation. Use responses that are brief, informative, friendly and firm. Do not give advice. Do not apologize.
  • Set limits on dangerous behavior. Decide when, where and how to meet. Avoid making harsh statements, because they will only inflame the HCP’s bad behavior. For help in setting limits, speak with law enforcement, legal advocates or your support system (friends and family).

You will not be able to “cure” or change the other person. You are trying to manage the relationship, manage your anxiety and manage your responses to the high-conflict person.

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