Communication with High Conflict Personalities

Many years ago I attended a workshop conducted by Bill Eddy, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at the High Conflict Institute in California. Bill pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is considered an expert in managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.


I know that some readers will be thinking they have a few HCP employees at their current organisation. 

One of the strategies (coined by Bill) for communicating successfully with a HCP (and which I have used since attending his workshop - with some tweaking over the years)  is identified by the acronym BIFF. 

Bill describes his strategie as :

B - BRIEF: 2-5 sentences is all that’s needed typically
I - INFORMATIVE: focus on facts and straight information
F - FRIENDLY: use a friendly tone
F - FIRM: close it firmly and if you need a response, offer two or more options for the other person to choose from.

While the acronym is very easy to recall, I do believe it can be improved upon.

For example:

B - Brief. 

This is 'spot on'. A HCP is usually not in a state to listen well and so keeping the provision of information brief  and concise (using only a few sentences with no jargon) and limited to a few major points will help with improved comprehension by the HCP. Also keeping the range of topics open for discussion (in that meeting or email) limited and the actual interaction brief are also very important strategies. A HCP will want to 'dart' from topic to topic which can be likened to them 'lighting spot fires' all over the place and expecting you to run around putting them out. This means that your attention is scattered and your concentration and energy levels can rapidly become depleted. You may feel overwhelmed or you may feel you are achieving a lot but in reality, you are being diverted from the real issue that needs to be addressed. Stay focused and put Boundaries for the topic/s of discussion and the length of the interaction in place before the meeting or communication (in whichever format) starts. 

I - Informative

You must be ready to provide only factual information in a concise manner (either because the HCP has reasonably requested, needs or is entitled to it or it is the information you need to impart). Including any values based content/comment or incorrect data only allows the HCP to take off on their own tangent. Giving too much information and non essential information only opens up the opportunities for the HCP to ask questions and demand answers which you probably don't have or can't divulge. Any hint that you are withholding information, being dishonest or are peddling a hidden agenda will incite a HCP and take the conversation down unnecessary 'rabbit holes'. Remember, this interaction is about the exchange of information. It is not about appealing to the 'better side', emotional intelligence or empathy of a HCP. HCP's don't have a high degree of empathy for you to try to appeal to - so this approach will not be successful for you.

F- Friendly

This really is an unfortunate choice of wording. You don't want to be seen as a friend or as trying to be friendly with a HCP. This approach will either raise suspicion (and lower trust) or will be taken advantage of (to your disadvantage) by the HCP who are masters in manipulation. Bill's recommendation is to always use a friendly tone and by this he means not to use a blunt, defensive, frustrated, angry or disapproving tone. In addition to this, my recommendation is that you use a professional tone, mainly neutral and definitely unemotional. 

F - Firm

For this aspect, Bill suggests you remain firm in 'sticking to' the agenda and the topic under discussion. There is a need to stay firm in your professional delivery and in no way expose any emotion or weakness in your frame of mind, your communication or the information you are presenting. This also means there is a need to be firm in 'sticking' with your stance on the topic and with the options you provide or agree to in going forward. Any sense of hesitancy or slight change in direction is taken as a sign of weakness and an anchor point for a HCP to try to argue about or continue to negotiate with you (which can feel more like railroading) and 'wear you down'. If you do not stay firm with and consistent in your use of language/choice of words, a HCP will 'swoop in on this' and question you, trying to 'put words in your mouth' and unnerve you. This means that you must have specialist knowledge of the topic under discussion and be a tactical strategist. You must have your stance and options for going forward worked out in advance of the discussion and be sure of the basis for your stance and options or a HCP will undermine your strategy and have you doubting yourself in no time.

The link to the full article is below. While it is a good read, it doesn't make someone a specialist in communicating with a HCP. In addition, sometimes an internal person can be 'too close' to the situation to be trusted by the HCP or just be tired and 'burnt' by their previous encounters with the HCP. So if it's time to have #thenecessaryconversation with a HCP in your organisation, consider contacting Workplace Harmony Solutions for coaching support or to deliver the communication to the HCP on your behalf.

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.