We all have people with “high conflict personalities” (aka jerks) in our lives. They are the people we have to walk on eggshells around, the ones who are always instigating an argument or causing drama. So how should you deal with them? Do you have to cut them out of your life or just reconcile yourself to being at war forever? And what if one of these people is in a position of authority, like your boss?
Join us as today’s guest, personal injury attorney Samantha Drum, teaches us how to recognize a high conflict personality and shares effective strategies for defusing and managing the situation.
Samantha Drum is a high-conflict strategist and personal injury attorney with years of experience managing high-conflict people and situations, as well as coaching others to do the same.
After facing several high-conflict personalities at the start of her career, she realized a harsh truth—law school did not prepare her for managing high-conflict behavior or extreme personalities. She decided to take the time to study high-conflict personalities to learn effective tools and strategies that she could use when she found herself in high-conflict situations.
She learned how high-conflict personalities work, the way they think, and what causes them to go off. Then she learned to implement plans for managing the situation so she could minimize the damage they cause and maximize her control of the situation.
Now she wants to empower other people with these same skills.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the podcast, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Samantha Drum. Samantha is a high conflict strategist and personal injury attorney who has learned how high conflict personalities work, the way that high conflict personality folks think and what causes them to go off. And she’s here today because she wants to empower other people with this same knowledge. Samantha, welcome to the podcast.
Samantha Drum: Thank you so much for having me.
Gabe Howard: Samantha, I’ve got to say, I love the term high conflict personality because it really sounds like the most professional way to call somebody an asshole that I have ever heard. Now, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but is that essentially what a high conflict personality is?
Samantha Drum: Yeah, I would say that jerk being the technical term.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Samantha Drum: I think basically in terms of relatability, I think most people could definitely understand the term high conflict personality as referring to the jerk in their life. So, I wouldn’t say that that’s inaccurate. I do try to keep it more on the professional level by saying high conflict personality, but basically the effect of the way that they behave and how they go about their lives living it. Yeah, it basically they are they’re just major jerks.
Gabe Howard: Samantha, before we get too deep into the show, I want to ask, is high conflict personality also code for narcissist?
Samantha Drum: Yes and no. So high conflict personalities, the term is meant to describe a pattern of behavior and a lot of narcissists engage in that pattern of behavior. But there are so many different types of personalities, especially personality disorders, that can qualify as having a high conflict personality. So, yes, narcissists can be high conflict personalities, but even then, there is a defining feature of high conflict personality that maybe a narcissist wouldn’t meet.
Gabe Howard: I really think to myself that, you know, all the corporate jobs that I’ve had or all the meetings that I’ve been in where I just seem to clash with the same person over and over and over and over again. And I’ve never called them a high conflict personality, but I have in fact called them well, in in my language, an asshole. But you are right. We do need to keep it slightly professional. They’re just being a jerk. And I feel like they’re being a jerk to me. And there seems to be I’m going to now split high conflict personalities. There seems to be two types from my vantage point. The person who has a high conflict personality towards me and me only so. So, they’re being a jerk to me or the person who is just a high conflict personality, period, meaning they’re being a jerk to everyone. Have you found that as well, that sometimes people just clash, but that overall people are okay? Has it split out that way, or is a high conflict personality a high conflict personality a high conflict personality?
Samantha Drum: Well, that’s really interesting. I’ve never heard about it in that way, but I think I have I think I can give you some insight into what’s going on there. I would say that from my experience, high conflict personalities are just that. They are just high conflict personalities. But what you described as directed at me versus at everyone is there are some high conflict personalities that they have what’s called an object of scrutiny. And basically, they have identified you as a threat to them in some way. And so, then they focus in all of their efforts on you, whereas other high conflict personalities maybe wouldn’t see you as a threat. So, they’re just going to treat everyone poorly in general.
Gabe Howard: And when they do this, when they’re treating everybody poorly, what’s their end game? I hate to ask, like, what is the motivation for somebody to be high conflict, but it seems like there has to be some reason they’re doing this that is in fact, serving them.
Samantha Drum: Yes and no. So, there’s a couple of ways that you could think about it. So, in my experience, there are people who are high conflict personalities and they run off of automatic reactions. And they never learned proper social skills growing up. And for whatever reason, the adults in their lives or the authorities in their lives never put some kind of limitation on their behavior. And so basically, it’s worked for them.
Gabe Howard: Samantha, I want to be honest. There’s this little part of me that’s thinking, well, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If it’s working for them, if it’s advancing their career, who cares if they’re a high conflict personality? But I also know because I’ve read some of your stuff and we did a pre-interview that it’s actually not working for them. They just think it’s working for them. I got a little murky on how that is because based on what you just said, I’m thinking, well, hey, it’s working. They should keep it up.
Samantha Drum: The problem becomes where it starts affecting their relationships. Whether it’s a work relationship, a family relationship or a friendship. At some point, those relationships are going to start breaking down because it’s not sustainable to be living in that kind of toxic environment with a person who just refuses to behave. It will work for them for as long as the person who is around them is willing to tolerate their behavior.
Gabe Howard: And so, to break it down, it seems like there’s really three defining characteristics of a high conflict personality. And those three are.
Samantha Drum: I would say distorted thinking so that the way they think and view the world is they don’t have clear logical reasoning about it. And then the second one would be unregulated emotions. They don’t know how to keep themselves in check in such a way that they go into their toxic behavior, which is number three, where they blame, they shame, they engage in aggressive, controlling, intimidating behavior. They’re very defensive. They lack impulse control. So, I think it can be boiled down to distorted thinking, unregulated emotions and extreme and toxic behavior.
Gabe Howard: When someone finds themselves dealing with a high conflict personality, do you have any tips or tricks that they can use to help manage that?
Samantha Drum: Yeah. So, when you are kind of in the in the deep of it, dealing with a high personality, you’re with them in person. It’s very natural to get overwhelmed and to go into fight or flight. And one way that you can help yourself to respond in a constructive manner versus reacting with a defense mechanism is a tool that I like to use called Focus on Your Feet. And so basically the idea behind this tool is that your brain can’t really do more than one thing in a meaningful way. So, it can’t be trying to figure out how to react to them and focus on your feet at the same time. And so, it gives you some time to adjust to the situation and then decide how you want to constructively respond. So, when I’m doing this, if I feel overwhelmed and I immediately notice like I’m not okay, I feel overwhelmed and I feel like I’m going to act out and kind of rise to the same level as them, I will focus on my feet. Sometimes I’ll wiggle my toes and just kind of get a sense of the way that they feel on the ground. And that helps me so that it gives me just enough time to say, okay, if I react the way I want to react, which is to be explosive or to say something mean, then what? Then it’s going to escalate the situation, then it’s going to make it worse.
Samantha Drum: Then I’m not being any better than them and I’m not showing them a proper way to respond. It gives me a chance to just like put myself in check and then say, okay, I’m going to do something different. Maybe I’m going to be silent. Maybe I’m going to tell them, I need to table this right now. I will talk to you later when I’m in a better position to respond to you, but just kind of take things slowly because I think we tend to want to be very fast in those situations. We feel like it’s an emergency and we just need to get things fixed right away. And being hasty tends to get us in more trouble. And so, focusing on your feet and slowing down and asking yourself then what? Then what is going to happen if I do this bad thing that I want to do because I’m mad or I’m hurt? Those are really helpful in preventing a situation from continuing to escalate and they give you a chance to leave if you need to.
Gabe Howard: So essentially, if we don’t give pushback, they will continue the behavior, because after all, that’s the ultimate in working for you. They’re a high conflict personality and do what they do and the people around them tolerate it. So, there’s no reason for growth. So that really does mean that we can at least it sounds to me like we can do something about their high conflict personality. We can set the boundaries; we can give the push back. Is that accurate? And if so, how? I mean, we’ve I’m going to go back to the jerk statement, right? We’ve all dealt with jerks and it’s they’re not easy personalities to deal with.
Samantha Drum: Right. I agree. So as someone who has had multiple high conflict individuals in my life, I can say that there is something you can do about it. But the result of that isn’t necessarily changing their behavior or their personality. It’s just setting up ways that you can deal with it in a healthy way that isn’t going to allow their behavior to take over your life or have a negative impact on your life. You can set boundaries, but you can also expect them to try to bulldoze over those boundaries. And you can choose not to accept certain behaviors. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to act on those behaviors. You just have to kind of put some distance between yourself and them. And you also need to tell them, like, that’s not acceptable. I’m not I’m not going to allow this anymore. So yes, you can do something about it. But no, that’s not necessarily going to change how they act moving forward.
Gabe Howard: I’m going to set this up using an example. My eight-year-old niece is a high conflict personality. Now I recognize that she’s a high conflict personality because she’s eight, but I can never tell her anything and get her to do it the first time. I can never set any boundary and get her to respect it the first time. But if I’m consistent, if I, if we provide that united front with like her parents, my wife and the other adults in her life, eventually she does come around. And I think many people understand that when you’re raising children and negotiating a world in which people are learning and exploring and testing those boundaries. Does that apply If you hold firm on those boundaries, typically, will people come around? Or is it just you’ve now created conflict for life by trying to enforce those boundaries?
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with personal injury attorney Samantha Drum discussing how to deal with high conflict personalities.
Samantha Drum: I don’t think that you’ve created conflict for life. So, in my experience, the person is I mean, they are high conflict, they thrive on conflict, they receive gratification from it. It’s kind of like it’s like an internal reward system. Like as soon as conflict starts, they start getting some kind of feedback that they really enjoy. Whether or not they are coming across as a jerk, they don’t really care. High conflict individuals tend to really lack any kind of self-awareness that would enable them to make lasting change. And so, I don’t think it would be realistic to expect that when you start standing up to them, setting boundaries and doing the things that you need to do to create peace in your life, I wouldn’t expect them to make any kind of meaningful change. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to make your meaningful change. You just need to go into it with your eyes wide open. Knowing when I put down this boundary, when I say that I’m not going to tolerate this, they are not necessarily going to take my message well, and that’s okay. They don’t have to take my message well; they just need to back off. That being said, they will still try to infringe on your boundaries.
Samantha Drum: They will still use the same tools that they know have been always effective because when someone starts standing up to them and doing different things they like, you know, they’ve kind of changed the game. And so, they’re going to probably double down because that’s the nature of their personality, is they will double down and it does get tense. It gets really hard. That doesn’t mean you give up by any means. You still have to stand firm and still demand that your expectations be met. But yeah, I would again, I would not expect them to change. I would just expect that you do something different that would require some kind of different response from them, but not to expect them to suddenly, like get their act together around you. Like, in my experience, I have I’ve had high conflict bosses, I’ve had high conflict family members, and like, maybe they’ll behave after I’ve set that boundary or that expectation or that limitation. Maybe they’ll start behaving there in that setting. But like a month down the road, we’re in the same position and they’re behaving the same exact way. And that’s not where I just give up and say, oh, it didn’t work. I just I’m like, no, I already told you this is already. I’ve already made it clear that this is not acceptable. I’m going to do this now because I’ve already I’ve made it clear to you that I’m no longer going to accept the way you behave.
Gabe Howard: Some of the biggest high conflict personality folks that I know are people in authority over me. They’re the boss. They’re in management. And on one hand, I’m listening to what you’re saying. I’m like, that’s good. Set those boundaries. Tell them no. Tell them that you’re not going to do that. But, you know, the devil’s advocate in me is like, you can’t tell your boss no. What’s the strategy for the people in authority? Management, your bosses, the people above you in the food chain?
Samantha Drum: Yeah. So, I actually have personal experience with this one. So, so as you mentioned before, I am an attorney and when I was when I was a little baby attorney, brand new, I had two high conflict bosses. And with the first high conflict boss, I didn’t know what I was up against. I didn’t know what I was dealing with. And so, I just, I just I submitted I was so terrified of getting fired and I made myself, like, physically ill from it. So, when I got the second boss and I realized, like, I can’t, like, this is not sustainable. This is not a sustainable way of life. Like, I cannot move forward with this. Um, I did end up having to set boundaries with her, which was the most terrifying situation that I ever found myself in because I was extremely vulnerable. I was up against losing my job if I set it the wrong way or did anything wrong. But I had to sit down with her private, private one on one. You know, when you when you deal with these people, you don’t want to do it in a setting where it can cause them embarrassment in front of other people. You want to kind of minimize as much tension as possible. And I sat down with her and I just said, I don’t like the way you treat me. You’re very rude to me. The way that you behave is unacceptable and I’m not going to accept it. And I took a big risk because I knew that there was a possibility of me getting fired.
Samantha Drum: But I also knew that when it comes to a boss, you know, there are standards of behavior that you can expect from them that are protected by the law. There is some protection there in terms of you are allowed to set boundaries with your boss saying no, I mean no is a full sentence. And it is a hard word to say to someone in a position of authority. But I think a lot of the delivery plays into that. If you’re calm and collected and you say, no, I’m not going to do that, like that either violates my values or I cannot do that. I cannot bring myself to do that, and you give a good explanation. And then you could also follow up with an email afterwards explaining like, you know, as I mentioned before, no, I’m not going to do X, Y, or Z because of this reason. Then you’re setting yourself up to be in a good position where if something does go wrong, they try to fire you, then at least you are protected because you didn’t engage in any kind of behavior that was worth being fired over.
Gabe Howard: There’s this general belief that you have to have a high conflict personality in order to succeed at the highest levels of politics or business or even leadership. Now, study after study has shown that that’s just simply not true. That’s just something that people believe because they see examples of very loud or bombastic politicians or business leaders in the news and they believe that they’re all that way, wherein in fact only a very small percentage is. But I do believe that this leads people to tolerate this behavior in their authority figures and their bosses and their management because they think, oh, well, yes, they’re a high conflict personality, but that’s what they need to do to keep the department afloat, the project going, the company running, so I can stay employed. Do you have information on that or any thoughts on that sort of phenomenon? Because I do think that people tolerate, well, frankly, jerks in the workplace because they believe that it does have some benefit it.
Samantha Drum: Yeah, I think that people it’s like they accept all of the bad for one of the good qualities that they see. And I think that the quality that they’re seeing in these high conflict personalities, in these positions of authority is what I call disagreeableness. And I think that in order to be successful in these positions of power, you do have to be disagreeable. You have to be willing to be the guy that says no and that it’s amazing. It takes you so far saying no, saying I don’t agree with that, saying I don’t think that that’s true. Um, all of those things can get you further because people inherently don’t like push back and so they’re less likely to push back. So, I think that the, the skill that high conflict personalities have that other people could learn and become successful is the skill of being disagreeable in the right time and the right place and not backing down. But you can do that in a respectful way without having all of the bad that comes with being a high conflict personality.
Gabe Howard: I really love that answer. I love I love that answer. I’ve I want to say it even one more time. I really love that answer because people believe it’s all or none. They’re like, well, high conflict personality is bad. Therefore, everything they do must be bad. And that’s it sounds like you’re describing that’s simply not the case. There’s a couple of skills in there that are positive that we could learn, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be a jerk about it.
Samantha Drum: Exactly.
Gabe Howard: Obviously in the workplace, you’re going to encounter a lot of different personalities and it’s really easy to put people into little, you know, labels. You know, this person is my friend. I like working with this person. This person is a jerk or a high conflict personality. But it makes me wonder, you said that you studied this, so you probably have a definition or a rubric, for lack of a better word, to define a high conflict personality. How can someone tell when they’re dealing with a high conflict personality?
Samantha Drum: Yeah. So basically, you can think about someone who is a high conflict personality is a person who tends to engage in patterns of thinking and behavior that escalate and increase conflict. There’s a difference between someone who is a jerk one time, you know, they lose their cool, which happens to everyone and they cause a big commotion and everyone’s like, wow, that was awkward. There’s a difference between that kind of situation, which I would say is probably more like a high conflict situation. You know, things got intense versus a high conflict personality where this is like it’s cyclical behavior, it’s patterns you can almost begin to anticipate, like, oh, don’t say this around this person because they’re going to explode. You know, everyone kind of feels like they’re walking on eggshells around that one particular person. So, if you know anyone like that, you’re most likely dealing with a high conflict personality.
Gabe Howard: Samantha, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks learn more and find you online?
Samantha Drum: Yeah. So, I run a website called www.ControlledConfrontation.com and I have actually a quiz called Is It High Conflict? That can help you determine if you are in a high conflict relationship. And then once you find out, I have another resource called my Argument Playbook, and it takes you through respectful skills that are essential to getting through a conversation that is getting heated and help you kind of de-escalate the situation in a way that you don’t walk away feeling like I should have said this and I didn’t, or I can’t believe I said that.
Gabe Howard: Samantha, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate your time.
Samantha Drum: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you are very welcome. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available to speak at your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” That book you can get on Amazon, but you can also get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me on my website gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow subscribe to the show. It is 100% free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show, bring it up in a support group, put it on social media, send somebody a text. Because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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