Last of 11 articles on high conflict people in church. Previous article: Loving High Conflict People with Empathy.
Beyond loving with our empathy, we need to love the high conflict people in our lives with our limits. Because they are unable to maintain relationships and they don’t know what is appropriate and was not appropriate in their relationships, they depend upon us to set healthy contours.
We are still being empathetic. We are still kind and gentle and patient. We are professional. At the same time, we set limits to help our high conflict people be successful in the relationships with us.
…we set limits to help our high conflict people be successful in the relationships with us.
The first thing we can do is reduce expectations. With high conflict people we need to be very disciplined about not promising or implying too much or offering too great of an outcome. They will take what we offer, multiply it, then come after us when their expectations are not met. In general, it is good practice to under promise and over deliver. With high conflict people this is absolutely essential.
Along with this goes the need to discourage an idealized image of ourselves. Authority figures especially, pastors and ministers, are easily idealize by people, particularly high conflict people. They will treat you as all good, without flaw, and even as the voice of God in their lives. Of course, you will eventually disappoint them in this because you, like the rest of us, are not these things. You are flawed and finite like everyone else. Remember, when high conflict people are splitting they will turn what was once seen as all good to what they believe now is all bad. And they will seek to destroy you without remorse because, you have made them afraid. Because you have come to embody their deepest fears. Because, in their eyes, you are a monster.
Your best defense is to cultivate and embody some humility. You aren’t there to fix everything. You aren’t there to rescue. Sometimes you can help. Mostly, you are traveling alongside them with your own limitations and struggles. Be honest and open about this. Not soul baring exactly, not being obsequious, but in a matter of fact way admitting what everyone else already knows.
Along with this is the need to establish a professional, arm’s distance relationship with your high conflict person. They will be looking to you for special treatment and to attend to them in a preferential way. They will want you to bend or break the rules for them because of their needs or status. They will want greater intimacy with you and more time. They will seek to become the center of your life. All of this will leave you vulnerable to their manipulations and attacks. It will also empower their self-absorbed and destructive patterns.
By establishing the limits of a professional relationship, you are helping them learn the appropriate, safe contours of how relationships are meant to work. You are saving them pain in the long run, even if they resist at the beginning and try to find some way around your limits.
When working with high conflict people it is best to keep to established policy, protocol and best practices. This will help protect you. It will keep you from being manipulated. It allows you to appeal to a common authority, a higher standard that everyone, including your high conflict person and even yourself must honor.
When working with high conflict people it is best to keep to established policy, protocol and best practices.
We also need to establish limits by not rescuing your high conflict people from the natural consequences of their actions. This is exceeding important and often very difficult. We don’t turn a blind eye to their actions or outcomes. We don’t rush in and smooth things over. Instead, we let them feel the full weight of their actions. We call in the appropriate authorities when necessary.
The high conflict person will resent you for this, but it is necessary for their development and recovery. They need to experience the natural consequences of their actions. It is how we love them.
Next Steps: Do you have people in your life or in your church who are asking you to bend the rules for them? Are you doing so and feeling uneasy about it? Do they make you feel that you owe it to them somehow?
Are you a fixer? Are you a rescuer? How does it feel to you when you watch someone fall because of their own actions? How can you be with someone in crisis without fixing or rescuing? Is this difficult for you? Why?
Do you know the policies and procedures of your church and denomination? Do you know best practices for clergy? Do you skirt around these? Make exceptions for yourself and others? Why?
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