8 Traits of High-Conflict Politicians
© 2016 Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek
As we head into the final stretch of the election season, most people are arguing over Democratic versus Republican policies and statements. But we believe we need to spend just as much time watching out for traits of high-conflict personalities. Politicians with these traits are highly ineffective, often increase conflict in our nation, “split” the country emotionally in half and may ultimately get kicked out of office. It doesn’t matter what their policies are, they are harmful to our national family. They can be Democrats or Republicans. Mayors, governors, senators or presidents.
But how do you spot the warning signs before you vote? In 2012, we wrote a book titled Splitting America, in which we described the damage that high-conflict politicians do to our nation. At the end of it, we included an 8-Trait Scorecard. These are the warning signs that often get missed in the rhetoric of a campaign:
1. Personal Attacks: Does the candidate focus on blaming others or talking about what he or she will actually do when in office? A preoccupation with blaming others with personal attacks indicates a lack of reflective thinking and unlikelihood of improving one’s own behavior and strategies over time.
2. Crisis Emotions: Does the person over-react emotionally and treat minor issues as terrible crises? Remember the Ebola crisis? It was a problem to solve, and measures were taken to eradicate the problem which did just fine. Crisis emotions interfere with our ability to think clearly. Stirring up the nation with emotional crises can distract from solving long-term problems in a rational way.
3. All-or-Nothing Solutions: Does the candidate have realistic proposals for solving problems, or does he or she focus on extreme positions, statements and solutions? In reality, national and world problems are complicated and need the good thinking of many people. That’s why we have our checks and balances type of government, and why we have the Senate and House of Representatives. To succeed we need to look closely at the strengths and weaknesses of various solutions and refine them before taking action. Simple solutions just mislead us and create unnecessarily endless arguments.
4. Self-Absorbed: Most politicians have some of this trait, which may be necessary to keep going in the face of extreme public attention and criticism. But the degree of this is the question. Too much self-absorption gets in the way of listening and seriously considering the issues and solutions we need as a national family. For some politicians, extreme self-absorption leads to fraud, kick-backs and schemes which rob our country of resources for their own self-interest. Every year a few politicians get caught in such corrupt behavior.
5. Lacks Empathy: This is the opposite of self-absorption. City, state and national leaders need to care about their constituents to be effective. National disasters and other problems arise suddenly at times, so we need leaders who can quickly care about the suffering of citizens and take quick action to ease their pain. All the policies don’t matter if the people don’t feel connected in a positive way to their leaders. Empathy can inspire us to work together harder at solving a community problem.
6. Misjudges Others: Many politicians grossly misjudge who their friends should be and who our enemies really are. An extreme example of this was when Saddam Hussein thought George W. Bush was bluffing about attacking Iraq in 2003 when Saddam made it difficult to see if he had nuclear weapons or materials. And George W. Bush misjudged Saddam Hussein, who he believed actually had weapons of mass destruction, when in fact he was bluffing. High-conflict politicians see the world too narrowly from their own point of view and frequently miss the cultural and thinking differences of other leaders.
7. Sees Self as Big Hero: We live in an increasingly narcissistic age and many politicians are our biggest narcissists. They see themselves as heroes in their own minds, and try to convince the rest of us that they have special powers, knowledge, skill and so forth that makes them capable of doing a better job than everyone before them. Then, after being elected, we see that they are mere mortals who can’t do very much after all. In reality, the more they see themselves as heroes rather than as leaders, the more likely they are to fail. What we need are leaders who can energize all of us to work harder together to solve problems, not who try to do it all themselves.
8. Doesn’t Play Well with Others: This characteristic is increasingly common. To get work done, we need politicians who can get along with others, can work with people they disagree with and have some resiliency when others disagree with them. For example, it used to be that individual Republicans and Democrats had lunch together in a private Senate dining room. Personal relationships were built so that politicians with different views could work together. Republican Orin Hatch and Democrat Ted Kennedy were an example of Senators with very different points of view who were able to work together for the good of the country in developing and passing legislation. But now this Senate dining room is rarely used, and there are few friendships between members of the opposing parties.
In Splitting America, we gave a score of 0 to 8 for each of these traits. It is not a scientific scoring process, as how you rate each candidate is somewhat dependent on your individual perceptions. But if you score politicians running for any office this way, we believe that this will help you and the nation avoid electing more high-conflict politicians who may do more harm than good if they are elected.
Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek are the co-authors of Splitting America. Bill Eddy is the author of the new book Trump Bubbles: The Dramatic Rise and Fall of High-Conflict Politicians and the President of the High Conflict Institute. Don is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes and other publications.