A surprising occurrence for many individuals in the workplace is the notion of Groundhog Day when dealing with someone who has a High Conflict Personality (HCP) and is under stress. Most adults recognize that good working relationships are vital to workplace success and spend considerable time nurturing these relationships. They also understand that there are occasions when those relationships will be stressed and challenged. It is only inevitable.
A useful way to think about this issue is the concept of a “good will bank.” Most of the time we will assist a coworker, provide support or do something that places “goodwill “ in our relationship bank. On the infrequent occasions when we stress or challenge a work relationship we withdraw goodwill from this bank. While these times are admittedly difficult the relationship is usually not damaged as we always maintain a reserve of good will.
In theory, this is how it works. However, when someone with a high conflict personality becomes seriously stressed there is no sense of goodwill. No reserve to draw upon for the relationship. You can work hard to nurture a work relationship. You can demonstrate time and again your loyalty, good intentions, care and concern for this individual (employee, coworker, etc.). Nevertheless, if they are stressed and their sense of danger has been triggered they cannot consider the current challenge in the “context” of your ongoing relationship.
This is what is so surprising to the individual dealing with an HCP co-worker, supervisor or manager under stress. It is hard to fathom and even harder not to take personally that the person with the HCP does not take into account the positive and supportive history you may share together. In many ways you are treated like a stranger. Your motives are suspect with no regard for your previous supportive behavior or good will. This is why it feels like Groundhog Day. It is if you are starting the relationship from day one.
It is very difficult not to take these responses from the HCP personally. Your instinct will be to confront the situation and insist that you be treated with the regard you deserve. Unfortunately, this will only escalate the situation further and reinforce what we call the HCP’s “mistaken assessment of danger.”
We suggest useful techniques that will help to calm the HCP and shift them into a thinking process that is more productive. You can:
use EAR (empathy, attention and respect) statements to calm them (calms the defensive right-brain)
ask them to write a list of options or think of ideas to help the situation (activates the problem-solving left-brain)
In our book, It’s All Your Fault at Work, we discuss this issue at length explaining why this happens and provide more techniques to increase productivity and get them back on track. The restoration of cognitive thinking will help to stabilize the situation so that you can carry on with your work functions. At least until the next groundhog day!
FYI: It’s All Your Fault at Work published today, February 3, 2015 — exactly one day after Groundhog Day.
Georgi DiStefano is an Employee Assistance Professional (EAP) and licensed therapist. She is a workplace conflict resolution trainer and has an extensive background in addiction treatment.
Bill Eddy is an LCSW, family lawyer and mediator, and the President of the High Conflict Institute. He regularly provides training to mediators, lawyers, counselors and others regarding high-conflict personalities.
Get more tips in It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People (Unhooked Books, 2015).