Loving high conflict people with empathy

Tenth of 11 articles on high conflict people in church. Previous article: Recognizing High Conflict People

High conflict people are deeply wounded. They are in a constant state of anxiety and suffering. They need our help.

In ministry, we are called upon to love and serve these people, often the most difficult and dangerous people in our churches. Loving them doesn’t mean simply being soft towards them.. We need a robust love to serve them and our churches and careers and families. We need a plan and a viable approach that will help us through.

We need a robust love to serve them and our churches and careers and families.

Loving high conflict people requires approaching them with a full understanding of their situation. We’ll need to understand what suits them and what triggers them. We will need to carry the bulk of our relationship with them. We will need to work at their pace. We will need to create a path for them to be successful. Finally, we will need to find a way to maintain our own sanity and energy.

Sometimes, we mistakenly believe that love is all empathy and compassion. This is an approach that can be effective for people who have a fully formed conscience and take personal responsibility for their thoughts, choices, actions, feelings, and outcomes. High conflict people are not capable of this and have repeated crisis in their relationships. They need more than just empathy they also need limits.

So, first we’ll start with loving with empathy and then, we will continue in the next article with loving high conflict people with limits.

High conflict people desperately need us to be empathetic. They need us to understand and share their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. They need our empathy to work it’s way out in compassion and to be beside them in sympathy genuinely caring for the high conflict person. Our empathetic response also needs to be able to incorporate the perspective of the high conflict person and to make choices and plans based on our understanding. So our empathy needs to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Matt 10:16). It is a tall order.

So our empathy needs to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Matt 10:16). It is a tall order.

Our empathy expressed toward a high conflict person will need to take particular shape. First, spend a lot of time listening and ask others to join you in the listening. Listening fully will take a lot of time and often to be uncomfortable. In the long run though it will save you time, energy, and pain.

And this kind of listening will save a high conflict person pain as well. The ability and willingness to listen empathetically will help soothe the high conflict person. And it will help them feel bonded. And I will give them a Safeway in place to work through their upset. This is a profoundly valuable gift to the high conflict person.

Always present yourself as friendly, civil, nonthreatening, and relax. Show them respect. They are often on edge and their deepest fears are just below the surface. Slights, impatience, disrespect, whether real or imagined, will lead to conflict and pain.

When you are with them, listening, be sure to recognize their real accomplishments and strengths. Don’t flatter them because they will see through it, challenge you and come to not trust you. But their real strengths and accomplishments need to be acknowledged and it will help them feel safe, known, and valued.

Be careful to not criticize them or blame them. Be careful about all negative feedback. They do not respond like other people who take personal responsibility for their actions. They will see it as a direct threat and danger. They will see it as an attack and respond with an attack of their own. Likely their attack will be harder, stronger, meaner then you would ever imagine.

Finally, in terms of empathy it is important that you validate the person without validating the complaint. When we are listening we need to acknowledge how deeply they feel what they feel and how important this topic is to them. But until we have an opportunity to factt check and reality test, we can’t act as though all that they have told us is true because we simply don’t know.

High conflict people are known to make false accusations. They have been known to lie. Not every accusation and make is untrue or unfounded. Not everything they say is a lie. But for the high conflict person knowingly lying or making false accusations can be seen as just another legitimate tool in their toolbox. Those who see the world this way will have no remorse when they lie to you. And, because they are so convinced that this is a legitimate act, they often won’t demonstrate the usual signs of some lying. So not only do they lie willingly and knowingly, it will be very difficult in real-time to identify that they are lying. So when we are sitting with them we suspend judgment on the contents of their stories. But we give an enormous amount of attention and empathy to the emotions they express.

Suspending our judgment is necessary for them and for us. At first that may seem somehow unkind or judgmental to withhold our validation of their story. If that’s the case for you then it will be important for you think through this carefully. If you champion the story of their’s that proves to be unfounded or worse a complete fabrication, your reputation maybe badly damage. Your credibility, perhaps your career, maybe devastated. You will have added to the pain of others unnecessarily and you may have a long path of making amends. If you accept all the high conflict person tells you at face value, you may find overtime that you too have promoted false accusations.

On the other hand, if we don’t spend sufficient time and care listening to the concerns and stories of our high config people then it is very likely that we will become the targets of blame. It is a fine line that we need to walk. Perhaps in seminary or in other training you have received and practice specific instructions about empathetic listening. It is worth the time and energy to review those materials. If you have never receive training specifically on empathetic listening now would be a good time to learn more about it.

Next Steps: Have you ever received training in empathetic listening? Now would be a good time to review that training? Now would be a good time to read about the process or attend a class.

What limits specific things do the high conflict people in your life do that challenge your empathy? What inhibits your love for them? Why? And why do they act that way?

Sometimes, by temperament or by training, we want to cut through a story and find the answer. We want to know who was right and who was wrong. We want to settle the matter, take sides. This inclination, left unchecked leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of the high conflict person. Have you ever been manipulated in this way?

Next Article: Loving High Conflict People with Limits

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