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  • Writer's pictureShandy Welch

How to Successfully Navigate High Conflict Personalities

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Through the journey of great leadership, you will quickly find that learning the art of negotiation is non-negotiable. Anytime there is a conversation where one party wants something, it is a negotiation. Sometimes they are big, sometimes small, sometimes obvious, and many times subtle.

One of my favorite podcasts and negotiators is Kwame Christian, in his latest episode with Lucia Kanter St. Amour they discuss how to best negotiate with a bully. Interestingly, this topic has come up a lot with my clients.

Strong opinions, power plays, gender differences, and cultural norms create a powder keg for bulling and are ripe for tactful negotiation.

Bullying is obvious in elementary schools but as we age, the tactics are subtle, sometimes unconscious, but no less damaging and undermining. You may feel shame and confusion as the tables are slowly flipped against you, and you may question your reality since “bullying doesn’t happen in a professional environment.” I am here to tell you it does and now is the time to learn some negotiation skills.

Lucia has some suggestions as to how to approach “high conflict personalities”:

  • “Build a rapport”, instinctively we want to push back and defend ourselves, but try leaning into the other person, with empathy, listening, and curiosity. Attempt to understand their fear or desires. This tactic will catch them off guard since they are conditioned for a fight. As I say, “it is hard to punch the air and win”.

  • “Ignore them”- behaviorist note that the most effective way to extinguish a bully is by ignoring them. Remember, their tactical platform is to create conflict and high emotion, it is from this place that they assume power and control. If you don’t engage they can not fight or threaten. Think what happens when you play tug-of-war and your opponent lets go…

  • “Avoid giving in, bullies don’t negotiate they make demands”. People that seek conflict are more interested in domination and confrontation than they are in the topic. It is the pursuit of intimidation and power that drives them, not the ideas or position. Bullies thrive in conflict, you are just an optimal target in their playground. If you feel strongly about your position stand firm and with confidence.

  • “Know your bottom line...know when no deal is better than a bad deal and, when to walk away” Negotiation and conversation are always a give and take, be very clear as to what you are willing to give up and what you are not. When interacting with a bully, emotions are high, it is easy to push that line and sacrifice your integrity, and become “manipulated into concessions” you later regret. Prior to engaging, find clarity around what is most important to you or the team it is from here that your confidence will grow. Bullies bank on your waffling and lack of concise thought. Beat them at their own game.

  • “Be calm and patient”, high conflict people work off of emotion and rely on their intimidation to force resolution. Be patient and calm. Do not match their energy or emotion. Drag out the conversation and slow the momentum. This in itself will dissatisfy their need to rumble and may diffuse the situation.

  • “Bring in a neutral decision maker or mediator”. This idea may be met with opposition since they will no longer be the most powerful person in the room, the mediator is emotionally neutral and can’t be intimidated or influenced. The scariest threat for a conflict seeker.

Finally, if you have tried all of these without success Lucia suggests “prepare for war or walk away.” This is really hard and it becomes clear that the culture of the situation does not support reconciliation and unfortunately, supports bad behavior. The question is, how do you want to fit into that? What is this worth and how much is this costing you?

Things to Consider:

  • Are you aware of subtle signs of high conflict personalities? If so, can you implement some of these strategies now, before the emotions rise?

  • What is your responsibility to speak up and protect and support others who are feeling the wrath of this behavior? It is certainly easier to watch but isn’t that tacit agreement?

  • Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

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