Review: 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life by Bill Eddy

The following is a review written by Larry Gaughan of 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., Training Director and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute

No discussion of ADR is complete without reference to the works of Bill Eddy. Bill is Training Director and co-founder (with Megan Hunter) of the High Conflict Institute (“HCI”) in San Diego, California. He is a practicing attorney and social worker, as well as one of the most experienced mediators in the United States. For ten years HCI has specialized in studying high conflict persons and finding practical ways to deal with them. HCI’s website is HCI is an excellent source of consultation, training, books and articles on some of the most difficult and potentially destructive individuals we may have the misfortune to confront.

High conflict persons (“HCPs”) are often positional, competitive, and inflexible, and they present a variety of other problems for themselves and others. They also are likely to become invested in the conflict itself. The problem with HCPs is exacerbated in that many of them also fit the category of persons with personality disorders (“PD”).

Although HCPs are a distinct separate category from PD, there may often be an overlap, since an HCP may also have one or more personality disorders. DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the taxonomic and diagnostic tool of the American Psychiatric Association, lists 10 PDs in the latest edition, published in 2013. Bill considers five of them to be especially prone to becoming HCPs. These five categories are narcissistic, borderline, antisocial (also known as sociopaths), paranoid, and histrionic.

In his most recent book, 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life (Random House, 2018), Bill Eddy deals with the problems people with both conditions can cause for spouses, for anyone else who comes into contact with them, and for society. This is an essential book for divorce professionals, both as interesting and informative reading and as a book to keep on one’s desk “just in case.” The book is by no means limited to divorce or to negotiating divorce agreements. Its main focus is self-protection against persons with PDs and HCPs. The book applies to many situations other than divorce, especially those that arise in the workplace.

Both HCPs and persons with PDs present challenges in divorce cases. The basic characteristic of HCPs is that they are invested in conflict, while PDs are perhaps best described as persons with an engrained character defect. Bill Eddy diagrams and describes how a given individual may only be an HCP or have a PD, or may be an HCP with one or more PDs. The overlap cases tend to be more serious, as for example when an HCP is also a sociopath.

Bill Eddy lists three main characteristics of PDs as (1) interpersonal dysfunction, (2) lack of social awareness, and (3) lack of change. The four main attributes of HCPs, by contrast, are (1) lots of all-or-nothing thinking, (2) intense or unmanaged emotions, (3) extreme behavior or threats, and (4) a preoccupation with blaming others.

One attribute of both categories is that the cause of the condition is likely to long predate the emotions of the marriage or the divorce process, as well as the substantive issues of the divorce. However, these elements may well become more troublesome if one of the spouses in the divorce is either an HCP or has a PD. Bill examines the genesis of PDs and gives examples of both genetic and environmental (family systems) factors that may have caused the condition.

PD is a formal category in DSM-5, but HCP is not. However, the traits of an HCP may be part of some other specific psychiatric diagnosis. Unlike bipolar disorders and many psychotic conditions, which may often be successfully managed by medication, there are fewer mental health options for successful treatment or cure of either category of individuals. One of the main elements of these conditions is an inability to change.

That’s why Bill Eddy’s book, which focuses on how to deal with these persons in ways that avoid becoming a “Target of Blame,” a term Bill uses throughout the book, is so important for professionals.

The five PDs – narcissism, borderline, sociopath, paranoid and histrionic – each have distinguishing elements. Professionals should keep a copy of Bill Eddy’s book deskside is as a handy reference. He offers a one-sentence description for each of the PDs. For example, “cruel, con artist” for sociopaths. Then he lists the fear that most drives each. He follows that with the three main factors of each condition. Finally, he describes the emotions that someone is likely to experience in the presence of an individual with a PD. The emotional response to a sociopath is “a sense of danger, a need to be wary.”

For each PD, this book indicates the percentages of persons with that condition in the general society, and the percentages of males and females in each category, based on studies referenced in DSM-5. Narcissism and borderline have the highest percentages, although sociopathy is more serious in terms of its impact. That is also the condition for which gender is most one-sided, in that males are three times as likely as females to be sociopaths.

Since Bill Eddy’s book as about how to avoid problems with these persons, it is essential to keep in mind his recommendations as how to react when encountering one of them. For this purpose, he suggests one basic way NOT to respond in order to avoid becoming their Target of Blame. Never, he advises, tell an HCP that he or she is a high conflict person. The same, of course, would apply to someone with a PD. This engages them in exactly the wrong way and invites a negative, defensive response. Since high conflict people are by nature emotionally reactive, it is difficult not to be reactive to them in response. Bill’s contra-intuitive approach is much less likely to encourage them to keep the conflict going.

Bill is skilled in devising acronyms that jolt our memory. He postulates four of them: EAR, BIFF, WEB, and CARS. EAR - Empathy, Attention & Respect - is the most general of these, since it applies to a wide variety of situations including negotiation of divorce agreements. Empathy is understanding. Attention is showing that you are listening. Respect is not acting as if you are an enemy. This approach is useful in any negotiating, ADR or otherwise. It helps avoid being a Target of Blame.

BIFF stands for Bill’s four guidelines for the best ways to interact with high conflict persons: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. As with all of these acronyms, Bill Eddy provides useful examples in his book as to what each of these means and how it works. He also acknowledges that there is a danger that being too empathetic or friendly may invite manipulation from the PD or HCP. It’s the proper balance that counts.

WEB – Words, Emotions & Behavior – is an acronym for diagnosing. What is the PD/HCP is saying? What is your emotional (“gut level”) response to this person? What is bothersome about their behavior? Most of us tend to trust people. Bill Eddy counsels us that if what we are hearing, feeling, and observing would not come from 90% of the people we know, be wary. Our normal human response is to give people we don’t know the benefit of the doubt. WEB is a quick way to check whether that is appropriate in a given case. In his book, Bill gives examples of using WEB analysis with each of the five PD categories.

Finally, there is CARS – Connect, Analyze, Respond, Set Limits. Don’t avoid these persons, recognize them. Figure out what WEB is telling you. When you respond, never label the PD/HCP as such, even if you have a clear diagnosis. And, as always, when you are in doubt as to how to deal with a person you don’t know, keep it businesslike. And remember your own boundaries.

Bill Eddy points out that a PD or HCP may not come with an obvious label on their hat or lapel. Just because someone is a professional, or well-educated, or welldressed, or well-spoken, or charming doesn’t mean the he or she is not one of these persons. They may not be inherently evil. Everyone has something in their genetics, or environment, or family systems background, that may cause trouble as an adult. The two categories of individuals Bill describes may simply have too many of the genetic and experiential negatives coming together as they go through adult life.

There are other important reasons to read and retain 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life. There is a chapter about negative advocates – people who support PD/HCPs and become not only part of the problem, but at times part of the threat. The is a chapter on how to get help when you find yourself becoming a Target of Blame.

There is a great chapter at the end, “The HCP Theory,” in which Bill presents some of his thoughts as to how HCPs came to be. It includes some excellent analysis based upon left brain-right brain studies and studies of cultural influences.

Bill Eddy considers this book to be a capstone for his influential work with some of the most difficult individuals in our society. He includes some ideas as to the direction of modern society that relate to the main themes of the book. The book is clearly written, full of relevant categories and useful examples, and covers much more than the title might indicate. At a different level, however, it’s also a kind of insurance policy. One needs it even in the event there is only one future situation to which it might apply.

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