Using CARS(SM) to Address High Conflict in the Workplace

By L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW; and Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Most of us have had a bad day at work. We may have overreacted to a certain situation, become negative before understanding the complete picture, or perhaps we were just grumpy on a particular day. On the other hand, people with high-conflict personalities (which we will refer to in this article as HCPs) get stuck in a repeated pattern of over-reaction and negativity. Among other traits, these individuals exhibit unbridled emotions and extreme behaviors. This article introduces readers to CARS(SM), a new approach for effectively addressing high-conflict situations with clients, co-workers, or supervisors in the workplace.

High-Conflict Characteristics
The four primary characteristics of someone with a high-conflict personality are:

* preoccupation with blaming others;
* all-or-nothing thinking;
* unmanaged emotions; and
* extreme behaviors. 

These are usually the most common and observable characteristics. However, there are also secondary characteristics: frequently rigid or controlling behavior; thinking dominated by negative emotions; inability to reflect on their own behavior; difficulty empathizing with others; and constantly recruiting “negative advocates” to help them attack their “targets of blame.” 
These characteristics lead HCPs into a range of high-conflict workplace behavior: being uncivil; bullying; spreading rumors; purposefully misrepresenting others; pitting employees against each other; sabotaging work projects; and demeaning subordinates, whether in public or in private.
Once identified, the EA professional can talk with a client about dealing with problems regarding a co-worker, supervisor, or manager who has a high-conflict pattern of behavior. The focus is on the behavior, so that neither the EA professional nor the client are labeling the co-worker as a “high-conflict person.” 

Adapting Your Approach
The next step in addressing this type of behavior involves teaching clients to adapt their approach when dealing with a HCP. We emphasize using RAD: 

* Recognize a pattern of high-conflict behavior.
* Adapt your approach by focusing on future behavior rather than trying to give the person feedback about past behavior. HCPs do not respond well to negative feedback. We suggest that clients “feed it forward” instead, which focuses on the future (upcoming work projects, tasks, events, etc.) and doesn’t trigger as much defensiveness.
* Deliver the four key skills of CARS(SM), which the client can use to manage their own responses.

The CARS Method(SM)
These skills can be used in step-by step progression or individually at any given time, just be sure to at least “connect” each time one is used. The four steps in this method are connecting, analyzing options, responding to misinformation, and setting limits. (An illustration is provided in the sidebar, “An Example of the CARS Method(SM on page 27).”

* Connecting: Advise your client that it is very important to “connect” with a difficult person before addressing any specific issue or situation. Using an “EAR” statement(SM) is a good starting point. For instance: “I can see how frustrated you are (empathy). I will pay attention to your concerns (attention). I have a lot of respect for your efforts in solving this problem (respect).” 
This concept may be difficult for a client to accept at first. After all, why should they be respectful or empathetic with someone who is giving them grief?” The EAP can help the client learn that EAR Statements(SM) usually calm down upset people right away so they can then use problem-solving skills. Our experience has repeatedly shown this to be true. (More information is presented in the sidebar, “EAR” Statements Assist Individuals with Personality Disorders.)

* Analyzing options: The second step of CARS(SM) is to assist clients in reviewing their immediate and long-term options. Over the course of several sessions, the EA professional can help an individual come to terms with a course of action. An important point here is that many clients have been so stressed by their experience with an HCP that even simple solutions do not come to mind. Standard pro/con lists and other traditional discussion tools can be effective at this stage. 
A key takeaway for the client should be that the HCP is not going to change. Therefore, how the client manages the situation, and examines their options and expectations is fundamental to their own well-being. Of course, some situations will warrant involvement from Human Resources, especially if policies or procedures have been violated. The EAP is often essential in helping make that determination.

* Responding to misinformation: HCPs can stir the workplace pot and create great fear and dissention. They have the ability to recruit individuals as negative advocates. The negative advocate is often not a high-conflict person, but has been drawn into the drama and lends credibility to the HCP, even though the advocate typically does not present facts or offer information that would add to clarity of the issue.
EAPs should encourage all clients, especially supervisors and managers, to address such misinformation promptly. Utilize team meetings, memos, other workplace gatherings, and email to set the record straight. 
With respect to written communication, the CARS Method(SM) includes a technique we call a “BIFF Response®.” BIFF stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm. (Eddy, 2014b). (See sidebar on page 24 for examples.) The takeaway for a client is that ignoring misinformation or rumors is a mistake. Conflict will spread, not diminish, when HCPs are involved.

* Setting limits: An EAP can be instrumental in helping an employee set appropriate limits within the organization’s policies, procedures, and Human Resource directives. The previous CARS(SM) steps lay the groundwork for setting limits. This includes establishing a limit by having the client focus on the desired behavior. Then, clarify the policy to focus on the behavior the organization wants. Next, explain the benefits of the desired behavior as well as the consequences for not demonstrating the recommended behavior.
It should be emphasized that focusing on what the client/organization wants is another aspect of the “feed it forward” approach described earlier.

The time has come for EAPs to introduce strategies to help employees and managers at all levels gain the skills necessary to effectively interact with HCPs. These abilities typically don’t occur intuitively, so teaching the CARS Method (SM) can help curb this growing problem. 

L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW, and Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. are consultants and trainers with the High Conflict Institute, and are the co-authors of the award-winning book, “It’s All Your Fault at Work: Managing Narcissists and Other High-Conflict People and New Ways for Work Coaching, Manual and Workbook.” Ms. DiStefano has extensive clinical/management experience in mental health, EAP service, and addiction treatment, and was inducted into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction in 2014. Mr. Eddy, the President of the High Conflict Institute, speaks worldwide on managing high-conflict situations in legal disputes and workplace conflicts.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed). Arlington, VA: Author.

Eddy, B. (2014a). So, what’s your proposal? Shifting high-conflict people from blaming to problem-solving in 30 seconds. Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books.

Eddy, B. (2014b). BIFF: Quick responses to high-conflict people, their personal attacks, hostile email and social media meltdowns. (2nd Ed.). Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books.

Eddy, B., & DiStefano, L.G. (2015). It’s all your fault at work: Managing narcissists and other high-conflict people. Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books.

“EAR” Statements Assist Individuals with Personality Disorders

The CARS(SM) technique known as “EAR” statements(SM) use empathy, attention, and respect in addressing conflicts. Individuals with personality disorders, primarily those in Cluster B, “often appear as dramatic, emotional, and erratic” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013. p. 646). EAR statements(SM) seem to be exceptionally helpful when assisting individuals with these disorders. 
Note that not all personality-disordered individuals are high-conflict people. While some are clearly HCPs who focus on a specific target of blame, others do not have targets of blame and are mostly hard on themselves.
In the case of Cluster B, these are persons with a Borderline, Narcissistic, Histrionic, or Antisocial personality disorder. The following are examples of using EAR statements(SM) with these groups. 

* Narcissistic HCPs seem to have an underlying fear of being seen as helpless or inferior. Therefore, EAR statements(SM) that focus on respect and attention can be particularly effective. (“I respect your hard work on this issue and I’m interested in hearing your suggestions.”)
* Borderline HCPs are preoccupied with fears of abandonment. When they feel abandoned (even if they aren’t), they can become enraged, vindictive, and sometimes violent. EAR statements(SM) that focus on empathy and attention are very helpful. (“I can see how upset you are about this. Let us see what we can do to deal with this problem.”)  
* Antisocial HCPs can be the most dangerous in the work environment. EA professional guidance is absolutely essential to navigate this situation. Chronic lying, lack of remorse, and manipulation are hallmarks of this category. EAR statements(SM) that focus on respect can be helpful in the short term, but clients will also need to learn strategies to protect themselves. The EAP will need to be involved in protecting the work environment from the possible predatory behavior of these individuals. (“I respect your energy and drive. Just keep in mind the rules we all need to follow to succeed here.”)
* Histrionic HCPs are usually not high-conflict people because they do not focus on a target of blame. However, they often see themselves as victims and fear being ignored. As a result, attention is an effective EAR technique with this group. (“It sounds like you’ve been in a tough situation. Tell me more.”)

According to research, “approximately 15% of U. S. adults have at least one personality disorder” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Yet another sizable percentage have traits of these disorders that make them difficult to deal with in the workplace. Conservatively, that’s at least 25 percent of the U.S. workforce. This makes EAR techniques important tools for EA professionals to add to their toolkits.
To learn more about EAR, visit

- L. Georgi DiStefano and Bill Eddy


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed). Arlington, VA: Author.

An Example of the CARS Method(SM)

Ted has a reputation as a manager with a short fuse. Erik has been called into Ted’s office. Ted is furious that a contractor, STEVCO, has been late with an order. He does not want to hear excuses and wants to send a message to the firm that he will not tolerate such poor performance. He directs Erik to cancel upcoming orders with STEVCO and find a more competent replacement. 
Erik is familiar with the company’s outside vendors and realizes that no other competitor has the resources or job knowledge necessary for the upcoming projects. Such an action would create major problems for their company.
Erik meets with his employee assistance professional for guidance. The EA professional teaches him the four–step CARS Method(SM), which Erik uses in his next conversation with Ted:

Erik: “Ted, I know the delay is very upsetting to you. I have spoken directly to STEVCO and they fully realize the difficulty it has created. They have devised a backup plan.”
Ted: “Too little too late. They are out!”
Erik: “This is certainly your decision. You have every right to be angry and upset. It is very important that these projects are completed according to your timetable. But if we change vendors at this time, I’m afraid we will go from the frying pan into the fire. The other vendors have only performed minor jobs for us. We have no idea if they have the capacity to handle a major project.” 
Ted: “I’m so angry. What a headache.”
Erik: “I agree! I have a proposal. Why don’t I do some research on the top vendors? You make the selection and we give them a challenging project in the next quarter to see how they handle it. In the meantime, we keep STEVCO working on the next set of projects. They understand that you are dissatisfied and will secure the services of an additional contractor. That should keep them on their toes. If the new contractor works out, we can divvy up the work as you see fit. If they don’t, we have not jeopardized all of our projects.”
Ted: “Good, that sends a strong message to STEVCO, let’s proceed.”
Erik: “Excellent! I will put everything in motion and keep you updated.”

Summary: Erik recognized that if he followed through with Ted’s emotional directive, he would have created havoc for the company, so he sought guidance from his EAP and learned the CARS Method(SM). * He connected with Ted by giving him empathy, attention and respect.
* Then he helped Ted analyze options by making a proposal that Ted recognized was in his interests.
* He responded to Ted’s misconception about the expertise of the other vendors.
* Finally, Erik helped Ted set limits appropriately with STEVCO by bringing on another vendor, while protecting the company by continuing with STEVCO projects. This allowed Ted to exercise his authority and express his displeasure, without causing substantial harm to their company. 

- L. Georgi DiStefano and Bill Eddy

What is a BIFF Response®?

Dealing with high-conflict personalities and their irate behavior can leave anyone at a loss. A CARS(SM) technique known as a BIFF Response®, can defuse hostile written communications or other misinformation. BIFF is simple: Brief (so it doesn’t trigger a hostile response), Informative (straightforward information, not defensive, emotional, opinionated or argumentative), Friendly (pleasant greeting) and Firm (ends the hostile conversation). 

Rule #1 is to ask an employee client: “Do I need to reply to this at all?”
Have the individual read the email/ text with a critical eye: Is there anything that really requires a response? (A deadline, an appointment, a needed decision). The client should look for valid matters and ignore the barbs. A decision on an appointment time is valid. An accusation that the employee never communicates is invalid. Asking what time to pick up a child from school is valid. Saying everybody is mad at you/blaming you is not valid.
Additionally, a decision needed for a concrete issue is only valid if it’s new. Further demands to discuss the same matter are not valid and need no reply, or a shorter, one-time only version – of what the client said previously. The employee should never take the bait when the next re-worded email with the same demand comes along. 

If the employee client needs to reply, he/she should follow BIFF:
* Brief: Keep it simple. Long explanations and arguments trigger arguments for HCPs.
* Informative: Focus on straightforward information, not arguments, opinions, emotions or defending yourself (you don’t need to).
* Friendly: Have a friendly greeting (such as “Thanks for responding to my request”); close with a friendly comment (such as “Have a good weekend”).
* Firm: Have a response to end the conversation, or offer two choices on an issue and ask for a reply by a certain date.


Team member email:
“Who do you think you are? You’re messing up the whole project and making me look bad! You know we were supposed to turn in those figures yesterday, but no! You’re so important you didn’t offer the courtesy of rearranging your meeting. I couldn’t get it done and it’s your fault!”

“Hi co-worker A, I appreciate your concern for getting reports in on time. As I mentioned in my email to everyone last week, my meeting could not be rescheduled. I’ve attached a copy of the email for you. You’ll see that Ms. Boss gave us an extension until Friday. I am available all afternoon. What time can you meet to finish the figures? Have a good morning. –Me”

- Trissan Dicomes, BIFF Response Coordinator for the High Conflict Institute