Work-Life Balance

How to recognize “high conflict people” in your work life

Written by Eric Titner

Is there a high conflict person in your orbit who seems to be intent on making your work life more difficult? Yes, these ultra-high maintenance and difficult people have become so prevalent in all areas of life—from personal to professional and everything in between—that they’ve been given their own nickname: HCPs. If one or several of these folks have found their way into your world, then you know how lousy it can be. But this doesn’t mean that you need to give up or surrender your happiness to a high conflict person. There are things you can do to help prevent HCPs from ruining your life.

Psychology Today recently discussed the growing HCP phenomena in a recent article by Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD: “HCPs can look and act great when you get to know them, but sooner or later their hostility, mood swings and blaming behavior can be targeted on you—you become their ‘Target of Blame’. They may or may not have personality disorders. But they lack insight and rarely change. Unfortunately, the skills that help us deal with ordinary people rely on reason and self-control, two areas where HCPs have a great deal of difficulty. We need to use different skills for managing our relationships with them, or avoiding them.”

Many of us figure out various methods for individually handling HCPs we encounter in our lives—we take stock of the person, their personality, their strengths and weaknesses, and just naturally get a feel for how to best deal with (or avoid) that person. It’s just a natural part of life—as we go through various career experiences we’ll invariably have opportunities to interact with a wide array of people, some of whom we’ll get along with and others we might not, and it’s in our best interest to figure out how to make the best out of every interaction.

True, HCPs can pose special challenges—they can be extremely difficult personalities to figure out how to deal with, especially when we encounter them in high-stakes environments such as the workplace, but if you encounter an HCP and may have to interact with one on a regular basis there is a way forward.

Eddy has outlined a proven method for dealing with HCPs, which they have termed the CARS method. This method consists of the following four skill areas: “Connecting with empathy, attention, and respect; Analyzing your options; Responding to hostility or misinformation; and Setting limits on high-conflict behavior. Such a method is often the opposite of what you feel like doing, but we have found that it works over and over again in calming HCPs, focusing them on their future choices (rather than arguing about the past), matter-of-factly correcting their frequent misinformation and setting limits because HCPs don’t stop themselves.”

You may be naturally doing some variation of the CARS method or some of its components when dealing with HCPs in your life. Let’s take a closer look at how Eddy breaks down each component of the CARS method, for maximum success in any tricky HCP situation.


This involves speaking to HCPs using statements that show you understand their issues and empathize with them. When people feel understood and listened to, a connection is established. Don’t make it fake—really try to reach out to get to the root of what is making someone upset: “Can you explain what’s upsetting you?” or “Yes, I can see how that is really frustrating.” Make it clear that you’re not talking down to someone, but rather approaching him or her as a peer who wants to listen and help. The goal is to keep the HCP calm so you can work together to accomplish the task at hand.


Then, approach your next steps as practically as possible. Don’t let someone else’s bad energy infest your life in such a way that you make rash decisions that won’t benefit your or your career. Say someone you work with is, well, impossible. What can you do? You can push through, stay calm, put your head down, and avoid conflict at all costs. But what if that’s not sustainable? You can go to HR about the HCP in your life, you can look for a new job within your company, or you can even look for a job elsewhere. There’s no right answer. You need to weigh all of your options and decide what’s best for you personally and professionally. Just make sure to do so with care and thought—and not after a particularly heated interaction.


According to Eddy, “HCPs are especially evident in their hostile emails and social media blasts. They also seriously distort information, even though they usually don’t know they are doing that.” While it’s unfair that you have to deal with stressful interactions like these, especially at work, the best way to do so is to take a breath and remain practical and factual in your responses. Politely point out any falsehoods in a fiery email or conversation, correct them, and move on. Do not give in for an HCP’s desire for drama and conflict. Do your best not to lose your temper or to push back with equally mean or accusatory language. Kindness is key. So is moving on once you’ve stated the facts and have nothing more to say.

Setting limits

According to Eddy, “HCPs generally have less self-control, are more impulsive, and are less aware of the impact of their behavior on others. Further, they often don’t care if their behavior bothers or hurts anyone else or even themselves.” The key to setting limits is to lean on the rules and regulations of your workplace or industry. Fight back with issues that are tangible, not emotional. Don’t make your responses personal. An HCP doesn’t care that they’re driving you crazy or that they’re being mean or irrational. So, again, be practical: “If this report is incorrect our department will look bad in front of the CEO. Let’s find all the errors together,” or “This conversation is against the HR rules; I suggest we move on to avoid trouble.”

Are you plagued by HCPs? If so, it can be challenging, frustrating, and absolutely aggravating—but it doesn’t have to be impossible. Use the strategies and advice provided here to help deal with HCPs in your life.

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About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.

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