Lend an E.A.R. to High Conflict
by Linda Gryczan
Most of us have encountered high conflict people. You know the type—surrounded with drama, often angry and behaving badly. They blame other people for their problems, and go on the attack instead of creating solutions.
While everyone gets angry, high conflict people target those in authority or closest to them with emotional tirades. They are remarkably unaware of the effect of their actions and manage to alienate those around them. Since so many of us have an ongoing work or family relationship with such a person, Bill Eddy, a therapist, attorney and mediator, has developed a useful method of dealing with their diatribes.
He calls it E.A.R., which stands for Empathy, Attention and Respect. Eddy admits that this is exactly the opposite of what you feel like offering when someone is verbally attacking you. But it is remarkably effective in calming people down and directing them towards a solution.
Using the example of a typical barking dog neighborhood concern, most reasonable people would approach the neighbor with a simple request to be aware of the barking and control it. A high conflict person will go on the attack. “Your dogs are barking all the time! You don’t care if I sleep at night! The next time this happens, I’m calling the cops!”
Rather than defending yourself give the person an E.A.R. statement such as, “I can understand why you are upset about this. Tell me what happened last night. Thanks for letting me know there is a problem.” This statement includes:
Empathy: “I can understand why you are upset.”
Attention: “Tell me what happened.”
Respect: “Thanks for letting me know.”
Empathy is the ability to understand and care about the feelings of others. It doesn’t mean you agree. It is different than feeling sorry. It means that you are relating to them as a peer, even though they may be behaving badly. Eddy lists other examples of empathetic statements:
“I can see how important this is to you.”
“I understand this can be frustrating.”
“I know this process can be confusing.”
“I’m sorry to see that you’re in this situation.”
“I’d like to help you if I can.”
“Let’s see if we can solve this together.” 1
Brief, uninterrupted listening shows others that you heard what they said.
Eddy notes that you may also say:
“I will listen as carefully as I can.”
“I will pay attention to your concerns.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“Tell me more!”2
We all need respect especially when we are upset. Even if someone has just shown you their worst, there is likely something you respect about them. More examples from Eddy:
“I can see that you are a hard worker.”
“I respect your commitment to solving this problem.”
“I respect your efforts on this.”
“I respect your success at accomplishing ___.”
“You have important skills that we need here.”3
Why this is important.
High conflict people have alienated the people around them and have burned out those who would be willing to give them empathy, attention or respect. Eddy says, “They are looking for it anywhere they can get it. So just give it to them. It’s free and you don’t sacrifice anything. You can still set limits, give bad news, and keep a social or professional distance. It just means that you can connect with them around solving a particular problem and treat them like an equal human being, whether you agree”4 with them or not. E.A.R. calms people down enough to have a more reasonable discussion.
Things to remember
Don’t take it personally. A high conflict person’s rampage is not about you. It has more to do with a person’s perception that the world is a hostile place, and his or her inability to communicate and manage emotions.
Don’t lie. If you truly cannot empathize, offer your attention, or respect the person, then take a break or end the conversation.
You don’t have to listen forever. Interrupting with an E.A.R. statement can meet the person’s needs more than his or her extended diatribe.
Keep your distance. There is no need to become friends with someone with so little emotional control.
For a more detailed explanation of E.A.R. I highly recommend the book, It’s All YOUR Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything by Bill Eddy LCSW Esq.
1-4Quote and references from http://www.mediate.com/articles/EddyB8.cfm.