Attorneys frequently encounter people with high conflict personalities, both inside the court room and in practice; sometimes it is another attorney with the high conflict personality. People with high conflict personalities tend to exhibit all-or-nothing thought processes, appear impulsive and can be demeaning and demanding of the people they interact with. There is a complete lack of logical reasoning which makes a high conflict personality extremely difficult to deal with, especially for attorneys who argue professionally using logical reasoning. Because we are held to a different ethical standard, attorneys must learn to remain calm and in control when faced with the high conflict personality.
The best way to handle a high conflict personality in practice, and remain professional in doing so, is to fully understand who you are dealing with and find a way to make it work until the case is closed.
WHO HAS A HIGH CONFLICT PERSONALITY
High conflict personalities tend to share similar characteristics and there are so many different types of high conflict people that you are likely to encounter as an attorney, both in practice and in life. According to the High Conflict Institute, these personalities are bred based on an underlying fear of abandonment or insecurities in comparison to others around them. Some characteristics include all-or-nothing thinking, impulsiveness, a total lack of responsibility for their actions, and distorted perspectives and expectations. The High Conflict Institute highly advises against attempting to “diagnose” a high conflict personality; instead recognize when you are dealing with someone exhibiting high conflict characteristics and work around it. Because of the general lack of self-awareness, a high conflict personality gaining reasonable insight about their actions through your stating “you are showing signs of a high conflict personality” is unlikely.
High conflict personalities find themselves in litigation, a lot. High conflict plaintiffs file frivolous or unnecessary law suits or SLAPP suits frequently and high conflict defendants are usually facing discrimination or harassment suits and assault charges. Most attorneys have dealt with high conflict clients and high conflict opposing counsel or colleagues. Becoming more prevalent are high conflict minors who are facing bullying and electronic aggression matters. There is a total lack of logical reasoning and self-awareness which makes a high conflict personality difficult to work with in practice because they do not gain insight from feedback or logic and reason.
REMAINING PROFESSIONAL WHEN DEALING WITH HIGH CONFLICT PEOPLE IN PRACTICE
When you must deal with high conflict people in practice, and as an attorney it is highly likely that you will, there are ways to remain calm and professional and avoid any further conflict than necessary to get through the case. There is a total lack of logical reasoning and self-awareness which makes a high conflict personality difficult to work with in practice because as attorneys, we are trained to argue or explain using logical reasoning. Recognizing a high conflict personality in practice means having to resist your usual urge to react and work around it. You cannot change a high conflict personality, so you must have a calm and well-practiced approach to dealing alongside them. If you cannot control them, you must control yourself. Control your body language, the tone of your voice, remain calm and firm; threatening a high conflict person is unproductive.
If the high conflict personality has an issue that is affecting your ability to remain calm and professional while doing your job, you can blatantly confront the person and try to eliminate the problem. For example, you could say “Are you treating me this way for a reason? Is it because I am…?” or “Is this really working out well for us?” A high conflict person is generally more than happy to tell you what is their issue with you or your service and you can get out in front and confront the bias before going any further. If this kind of behavior occurs prior to a deposition, you may request a video deposition because tone does not really come through when written on record. Other people will always sense the high conflict personality in action, if you remain calm and professional it will only highlight the high conflict characteristics.
If you believe a neutral third-party or a mediator would help, you can always suggest by saying “I don’t think we are communicating well..” but it tends to be unproductive to mediate a high conflict personality. As discussed above, the lack of self-awareness and refusal to take responsibility tends to overpower a mediation setting. However, by allowing a high conflict personality to choose the mediator, there may be a sense of trust that could help make the mediation productive.
When receiving an email from a high conflict personality, do not immediately send a nasty reply. It is advised that you hold the reply for 24 hours before deciding whether or not it is appropriate to send it out; and remember not to put the recipients email address in until you are sure you want to send the message to avoid sending inadvertent, or impulsive replies.
Dealing with high conflict personalities may be tricky for attorneys, but if you remain calm and in control you can get the job done professionally, close the case and move on to the next.
How To Earn CLE Credit on this Topic
For additional information on this topic, Attorney Credits offers a course titled “When Bias Turns to Bullying: Strategies for Dealing with High Conflict People.” This course is available for CLE credit in the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia (DC), Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.