The term “High Conflict Person” (“HCP”) has gained currency in recent years, in part as a result of the work of Bill Eddy. He says that HCPs are characterised by all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviours and blaming others. (Though I haven’t seen him say it, these read very like the characteristics of addictive behaviour). Eddy estimates that 15% of people are HCPs. It’s certain that there are people who fit Eddy’s description and he’s right to draw attention to the issue. But there are problems with this approach too, and these problems may prevent a workplace or an institution from growing and from learning the truth about itself.

Conflict can be Visionary

Eddy writes that HCPs “have high-conflict personalities. Conflict is part of who they are. It’s a life-long personality pattern of thinking, feeling and acting. Time after time they avoid taking responsibility for their actions”. The problem here is that we can point to any number of people for whom conflict was “part of who they are” and who are considered moral visionaries: Socrates, Jesus, Ghandi, MLK and so on. (In the language of the Enneagram, they are Type 8 “Challengers”). Moral visionaries may often find themselves in some kind conflict, not because of any personal failure or shortcoming, but because of their courage and their ability to challenge an institution’s self-image and accepted practices.

Every institution and workplace needs a moral visionary with the courage to challenge current practices. Using the HCP label in this way may make it harder for them to be heard.    

Emotions are Not Taboo

Another problem with throwing around the HCP label (though, in fairness, Eddy suggests we keep it as a “private working theory”) is that it runs the risk of pathologising any emotional display. According to Eddy, HCP’s “become very emotional about their point of view”. But what is intrinsically problematic about being emotional with one’s point of view? Is it the way the person gets emotional? As an Irish person living in Canada (and who previously lived in the UK and the US) it is clear that some forms of emotional display are more authorised than others. But this does not mean that other forms of emotional display (including swearing and shouting) are evidence of being an HCP.

Where emotions are seen as a symptom of a problem, all emotions become potentially suspect, leading to ensuing challenges of emotional suppression, passive aggression and so on.

Who Assesses the Behavior?

Eddy suggests that another symptom of HCP is extreme behaviour, for example the HCP “making very mean statements about those they care about”. But “mean” according to whom? Where is the standard? Imagine a customer service representative who witnesses poor workmanship on the part of a company technician that is damaging their client relationship. Is it “mean” to call the technician on their poor work? We may say not, but once the technician says it is, and this becomes used as evidence of the representative being an HCP, where is their comeback?

When “meanness” is an index of an HCP it can become a nebulous standard misused by the opportunistic to stop others from expressing valid concerns and to deflect attention from themselves.       

Avoiding the Shadow

Eddy has developed an important concept that deserves our attention. One essential problem with the HCP label is that it can favour the status quo and become another tool for a workplace or an institution to resist change. Unity in an organisation does not require unanimity and robust disagreement is not necessarily destructive. For a workplace or institution to face the shadow about itself, it needs what many people may well call a High Conflict Person.