Inside Cornell: Analyzing the words of psychopaths

Using computerized text analysis, Cornell professor of communication Jeff Hancock and colleagues at the University of British Columbia found that psychopathic criminals tend to make identifiable word choices when talking about their crimes. Hancock and UBC professor of psychology Michael Woodworth discussed the implications of their study at the October 17, 2011 Inside Cornell session at Cornell’s ILR Conference Center in Midtown Manhattan.

The Patterns of High-Conflict People

And why you shouldn’t let them dampen your spirit.

Did you ever meet someone who seemed pleasant enough, until one day they suddenly turned on you and started raging at you for some minor disagreement, blaming you for things you didn’t do, threatening you with public humiliation or demanding that you assist them in criticizing someone else? Such people are often considered to have “high-conflict personalities.”

After studying and teaching about high-conflict personalities for the past ten years, there are several important lessons to be learned to avoid engaging in conflict with them in your family, at work or even in a legal dispute with a high-conflict person (HCP).

1) They are predictable: High-conflict personalities are surprisingly predictable, once you know the warning signs. Since they can become dangerous, this basic knowledge is becoming more and more essential for everyone, and it’s not complicated. It’s all about recognizing patterns.

High-conflict people (HCPs) have a narrower pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving than most people. This high-conflict pattern makes their behavior more predictable than that of the average person, and makes it easier to identify someone as a possible HCP.

2) They increase conflicts: High-conflict people have a pattern of behavior that increases conflict rather than manages or resolves it, revealing warning signs that you can look out for. Sometimes this involves a sudden intense escalation of the conflict (screaming, running away, violence, etc.); sometimes it involves dragging out a conflict over months and years, while pulling many other people into it.

3) The issue’s not the issue: It’s essential to understand that, with high-conflict people, the issue that seems to be the cause of a conflict is usually not the actual cause. The issue is not the issue. With HCPs, their high-conflict pattern of behavior is the real issue.

4) They have an identifiable pattern: High-conflict people usually have the following four primary characteristics.

· Lots of all-or-nothing thinking

· Intense or unmanaged emotions

· Extreme behavior or threats

· A preoccupation with blaming others—their Targets of Blame

Lots of all-or-nothing thinking: HCPs tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution (i.e., everyone doing exactly what the HCP wants). They don’t—and perhaps can’t—analyze the situation, hear different points of view, and consider several possible solutions. Compromise and flexibility seem impossible for them. HCPs often feel that they could not survive if things did not go exactly their way and they predict extreme outcomes—death, disaster, destruction, etc.—if others do not handle things or respond in the ways that they want. If a friend disagrees with an HCP on a minor issue, the HCP may end the friendship on the spot, in a classic all-or-nothing response.

Intense or unmanaged emotions: Many HCPs (but not all) tend to become very emotional about their points of view. They often catch everyone else by surprise with their sudden and intense fear, sadness, yelling, or disrespect. Their responses can be way out of proportion to whatever is happening or being discussed, and they often seem unable to control their own emotions. Later, they may regret their outburst—or, sometimes, defend it as totally appropriate, and demand that you feel the same way.

Extreme behavior or threats: HCPs frequently engage in extreme negative behavior. This might include shoving or hitting someone; spreading rumors and outright lies about them; trying to have obsessive contact with them and tracking their every move; or refusing to have any contact with them at all, even though the person may be depending on the HCP for a response. Many of these extreme behaviors are caused by their losing control over their emotions, such as suddenly throwing things, or saying abusive words to the people they care about the most. Other behaviors are driven by an intense desire to control or dominate people close to them, such as hiding personal items, keeping others from leaving a conversation, threatening extreme action if they don’t agree, or physically abusing them.

There are also some HCPs who use emotional manipulation to hurt others but can appear very emotionally in control while they do it. Their behavior can trigger anger, fear, distress, and confusion in ways that are not obvious. They may seem very calm and collected. But their emotional manipulations push people away and don’t get the HCPs what they really want in the long run. They often seem clueless about how their behavior has a devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.

A preoccupation with blaming others: The single most common—and most obvious—HCP trait is how frequently and intensely they blame other people, especially people close to them and people who seem to be in positions of authority over them. The HCP attacks, blames, and finds fault with everything their Target of Blame does. At the same time, HCPs see themselves as blameless and free of all responsibility for the problem. If you have been an HCP’s Target of Blame, you already know what I’m talking about.

HCPs tend to angrily blame people—both strangers and folks they know—on the Internet, because when they’re online, they feel a sense of distance, safety, and power. HCPs routinely blame strangers, because it’s easy.

If someone you know routinely demonstrates one or more of these danger signs, be careful. And if all four factors appear regularly in the person’s life, they are very likely an HCP.

Perhaps you already know someone with HCP traits. If so, here is the most important thing you need to know: Never tell someone they are a high-conflict person, or that they have a personality disorder, no matter how obvious this may seem. They will see this as a life-threatening attack—and a valid reason to make you their central Target of Blame, perhaps for years to come. From their viewpoint, it will be as if you’d said, “Please do everything you can to ruin my life.”

Instead, learn about high-conflict personalities and how you can avoid them or deal with them without becoming their Target of Blame.

How to Quickly Spot High-Conflict People

This three-step method can help you decide whether to engage or back off.

High-conflict people (HCPs) have high-conflict personalities. This means they have an ongoing pattern of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behavior or threats, and a preoccupation with blaming others. They have a Target of Blame, whom they regularly bully, harass, blame, humiliate, annoy, spread rumors about, and subject to many other adversarial behaviors. This pattern increases and maintains interpersonal conflicts, rather than reducing or resolving them — which is what most people try to do. How can you spot HCPs early on, instead of being caught by surprise? How can you avoid marrying them, hiring them, working for them, living next door to them or any other number of bad situations? Look at their words, your emotions, and their behavior.

Words: It’s easy to watch out for their words. Do they speak in extremes most of the time, such as all-or-nothing terms? Are people either all good or all bad in their eyes? Or winners or losers? Do they blame other people for their own problems? Are they unable to reflect on themselves and see their part in problems?

The more frequently you see this type of problem, the more likely you will have to deal with it in the future. If people are all good or all bad in their eyes, you may be next. Don’t fall for their extremely pretty words — they may cover up some very ugly behavior in your future relationship, whether it’s romantic, work-related, or community-based.

Emotions: What are your emotions around the person? Do you feel uncomfortable or on the defensive? Do you feel like you have to justify yourself around them? Do you feel angry with them or angry with someone else, after they spoke about someone else? Emotions are contagious, and high-conflict emotions are highly contagious. You may catch the person’s fearful or enraged emotions, which be harmful to you if you act on them towards others. High-conflict people are always trying to recruit negative advocates for themselves, who will fight their fights and defend them when they are caught misbehaving. If you feel yourself getting sucked into one of their battles against someone else, stand clear!

Behavior: Does the person have a history of extreme behavior? Do they constantly try to justify their extreme behavior with excuses, such as being tired or stressed, or say they are just responding to someone else’s extreme behavior? Would 90 percent of people ever do what this person has done? Even a single incident can tip you off to the presence of a pattern beneath the surface sometimes, if the single incident is something that 90 percent of people would never do — even if they were tired, stressed or otherwise out of sorts. Keep in mind that high-conflict people can look good and behave extremely well for weeks or months sometimes, before showing their full range of negative behavior. Unless you have seen them in a crisis or close relationship, you may not know their potential for high-conflict behavior.

The WEB Method℠: All put together, I call this three-part analysis the “WEB Method℠,” so it’s easy to remember, especially under stress. Over time, I find that I can fairly quickly pick up on high-conflict statements and then check my own emotional responses around certain people. This method is explained in depth in my new book, 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High-Conflict Personalities.