Extremely Difficult People in Conflict Situations

In the workplace and elsewhere, we frequently have to contend with at least one or two extremely difficult contentious people who take a disproportionate chunk of our time and effort. Why is this phenomenon so widespread?

One explanation arises from the basic nature of groups and organizations: Outliers who become the focus of negative attention or the lightning rods for conflict are a feature of almost all social organizations or groups. Another reason is the lack of skills of some people: Many have never been taught or developed the skills needed to deal with difficult behavior or communications or to raise differences and articulate concerns in a proactive way.

It is also, however, important to recognize the role that personality may play. Given the distribution of personality types in society, the chances are high that in any group of 20 or more there will be at least some people with what are often labeled as a personality disorders.These might include:

  • Borderline Personalities (“You are all for me or all against me and my favorite game is ‘lets you and me fight.’”)
  • Narcissistic Personalities (“It’s all about me and, by the way, what have you done for me lately?”)
  • Sociopathic Personalities (“My moral compass point wherever I want it to and I don’t care one bit about hurting others.”)
  • Serious Anger Management Problems (“When I am upset, anything I say or do — usually loudly and hurtfully — is justified by my anger.”)

There are other mental health problems that often exacerbate conflict, such as addictions, bipolar syndromes, psychosis, and sexual boundary issues.

While some people may cross the line into completely unacceptable behavior, others may skirt that line but never quite cross it. Dealing with these people can be extremely difficult and draining, no matter how good one’s interpersonal or administrative skills. Why?

  • Rational discussion of concerns seldom works with them
  • Their most basic goal is often to keep a conflict or problem stirred up rather than to solve it or ameliorate it
  • Being the center of attention or focus, negative though that may be, is often essential to them
  • They can be extremely destructive to effective group processes
  • They are often adept at working on the boundaries of what a system will tolerate
  • Their ability to sow disorder is likely to be greater than our capacity to promote or impose constructive norms of behavior