Understanding High Conflict Persons (HCPs)

The vast majority of community members are interested and willing to participate according to the platform rules, even if they might not agree with every one of them. Sometimes people break rules or disagree, but their behavior can be quickly corrected and they can learn from their mistakes. If users continue to break the rules, they may be given longer-term or even permanent bans from the community or platform. Most users will accept their ban, but a small fraction will not.

A 2018 study by Stanford University estimated that 1% of subreddit communities on Reddit initiate 74% of all conflict on the platform. This incredibly small percentage of users rank extremely low in the agreeableness personality trait, and have no interest in getting along with others. Only a trained clinical psychologist can diagnose a patient with a disorder, but a term commonly used prior to diagnosis is HCP (high-conflict people). There are four primary characteristics of high conflict personalities, which is not a diagnosis but their description of specific conflict behavior:

  • Preoccupation with blaming others (their "targets of blame")
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Intense or unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behaviors (often what 90% of people would never do)

If you fail to use tact in your moderation technique and communication approaches, you may find that you or your community become the target of a high-conflict person. They may spam your community and you may delete their posts and ban their accounts, but more accounts can be created. Discord uses IP bans to prevent users from creating new accounts, but VPNs can be used to circumvent these bans. If truly motivated, armies of bot accounts can be created and used for mass-spamming, members of your community can be doxed, and ISPs or platforms can be DDoS’d to create fear in your community. If a high-conflict person gains access to money, they can pay somebody else to do the work for them.

Most moderators choose to simply wait out the harassment. Advanced harassment like this may go on for several days, or even weeks, but then stop abruptly as the individual turns their attention to something new in their life. In some cases the harassment can go on for months, continuing to escalate in new ways that may put the lives of your team or community members in danger.

What can you do to protect your community from High Conflict Persons? What motivates a person to behave like this? This article will help to explain the motivations behind this persistent, destructive behavior, and provide actionable steps to reduce or resolve their harassment.

The Virtue of Battling a Nemesis

A “nemesis” is an enemy or rival that pursues you relentlessly in the search for vengeance. A nemesis typically holds some degree of fascination for a protagonist, and vice versa. They’re an antagonist who’s bent on revenge, who doesn’t go away, and who seems to haunt the mind of the protagonist. They’ve moved past being an enemy to become something much more personal.

You might assume that a high-conflict person harassing your community is your nemesis, but this would be incorrect. You’re not going out of your way to obstruct their behavior, your primary focus is to engage and moderate your community. If the harassment stopped, you would move on and forget about their behavior. You resist their behavior only as long as it falls under your realm of influence.

In their mind, you have become their nemesis, and you must be punished for your insolence.

To them, you are the Architect of an oppressive Matrix, the President Snow of an authoritarian Hunger Games, the tyrannical Norsefire government in V for Vendetta. You or your community represent the opposite of what they believe. In one way or another, either by your direct actions or through your association with your community, you have wronged them and deserve to suffer for your behavior. It’s clear that you will never learn or understand what they see. You not only participate in creating the corrupt and unjust system that they are oppressed by and fight against, but as a moderator, you are the very lynchpin that maintains the corrupt system. 

You may believe this sounds outlandish, and you would be correct. Most people don’t believe that the world is out to get them, and that they’ll be hunted down and persecuted for what they believe. These individuals have an overactive threat detection system that makes them believe that you or your community are actively plotting their downfall. They take your opposing stance as a direct challenge to their competence, authority and autonomy. They harass you and your community because they believe that you’re out to get them, or want to replace them and their way of life. The truth is, all you really want them to do is follow the rules and maintain a civil conversation.

Understanding Tactical Empathy

Now that you have a better understanding of how somebody like this thinks, we’ll discuss the strategies that you can employ to solve this problem. The goal is NOT to get them to seek help or change their mind- we aren’t attempting to solve people. Instead, our goal is to prevent or stop certain negative behaviors that keep happening so that you can protect your community and focus your energy elsewhere.

The key to getting an individual like this to change their behavior is through utilizing “tactical empathy”. Tactical empathy is the use of emotional intelligence and empathy to influence another’s behavior and establish a deal or relationship. It is not agreeing with them, but just grasping and recognizing their emotions and positions. This recognition allows us to act appropriately in order to respond to our counterpart’s position in a proactive and deliberate manner.

The premise behind tactical empathy is that no meaningful dialogue takes place when we are not trusted or we are perceived as a threat. In order to get someone to stop harassing your community, you need to shift yourself from being the villain of their story to being just another random person in their lives. You must work to shatter the persona that they have projected onto you and show that you are not the enemy working to destroy them. You’re just a mod trying to keep your community safe.

By demonstrating that you understand and respect them as an individual, this will disarm them and allow them to focus their energy elsewhere. It will not change their opinion, but at least their behavior will change.

A Mod’s Guide to Situation Diffusal

When somebody continues to harass or disrupt your community, they’re essentially holding your community hostage. If someone truly is holding your community “hostage”, they’re often doing so because they’re looking to open a dialogue for negotiation. Frequently, people take hostages because they need somebody to listen. They aren’t getting the attention that they believe they deserve, and attempt to cause as much disruption as possible in order to make their case.

You are a community moderator negotiating the peace of your community, not their lives, but these tactics can still apply.

Situation diffusal can generally be defined by three primary processes, each designed to collect information and use it to disarm the high-conflict person from believing that you’re an enemy or threat. These processes are called The Accusations Audit, Mirroring to Understand and Getting to “That’s Right”.

The Accusations Audit

An accusations audit is where you focus not on just the things that they believe, but the things that they believe you did wrong. An accusation Audit is not based on logic - it’s based on the unfiltered emotions of the other person. 

It’s important that you go through their early comments and messages to understand what prompted this behavior in the first place. This might have been banning them breaking a rule (which is what you’re supposed to do, this isn’t to say that you aren’t acting unreasonably) or not properly punishing another community member they got into an argument with. They might believe “I feel like you didn’t give me a chance to explain myself” or “I feel like you’re discriminating against me”. 

Your understanding of their beliefs will be flawed and inaccurate, but you must do your best to piece it together into a coherent argument on their behalf. If possible, learn more about the other communities they’re a part of. Identify if they’re harassing any other communities, and the reasons for doing so. Are there any commonalities of note? 

Mirroring to Understand

Once you believe you’ve figured out why they’re upset with you or your community, mirror their language to verify it. At this point, opening a dialogue might be incredibly difficult if they’re using throwaway accounts regularly. Chances are they do have a primary account they continue to use in other communities, which can help greatly with starting your dialogue. At this stage, you’re still working to collect information about what they believe, directly from the source. Examples of questions you can use to verify their opinions include, “It seems like you believe that I’m being unfair because I didn’t give you a chance to explain yourself.” or “If I understand correctly, you believe I’ve been discriminating against you instead of taking your opinion seriously, is that right?”

Chances are, the responses you receive will be filled with aggression, profanity and insults. You must ignore all of this, and continue working to understand their position and the events that resulted in them targeting your community. Negotiations like this are difficult in voice-to-voice communication, and nearly possible via instant or private messaging. They will be incredibly resistant at first, perhaps thinking that you’re attempting to trick them into a perjury trap for them to admit their guilt or ignorance.

When you get them talking to you, mirror that language to get them to elaborate further on their beliefs. An example of dialogue might go something like the following:

Spammer: “It’s bullshit that mods ban strawberry jam lovers because the blueberry jam lovers are afraid of being exposed for who they really are.”

Mod: “Afraid of being exposed?”

Spammer: “Yeah, the blueberry jam lovers are secretly running the world and plotting against anyone who doesn’t believe in the same jam flavor preferences as they do.”

Realistically, blueberry jam lovers are not actually running the world or plotting anything nefarious, but in the mind of the spammer this is undeniably true. And while this example was intentionally mild, you can infer more severe types of conversations that would follow a similar format. 

Regardless, as you dig further into what they believe, you’ll notice that the rabbit hole will go very deep and be filled with logical fallacies and obviously disprovable biases that make no sense. Remember that the truth or reality behind what they believe is completely irrelevant, and attempts to correct them will undermine your goals. Your job is to help them explain their beliefs to you to the best of their ability, and for you to understand their position to the best of your ability. Once you believe you’ve collected enough information, you can move to the final step, getting to “That’s Right.”

Getting to “That’s Right”

Once you believe you’ve completely understood their position and what they believe, you can repeat their entire position back to them. Demonstrate your understanding by effectively summarizing it concisely and accurately, regardless of how much you disagree with the position. Don’t focus on their behavior or the actions that resulted in them getting banned. Instead, focus exclusively on the ideology that drove their behavior. Do this until you’re able to get them to say “Yes, that’s right” at least 3 times, or by asking if there’s anything else that you forgot in your summary. If you did miss anything, repeat the entire position again while including the extra information. When reiterating their points, be very careful about restating things that are not true. Do your best to remove personal bias from the statements to focus them back to “absolute truths.”

Their actions are about trying to make a point- but what you’re doing is getting them to make their point without taking action, because you have heard what they are trying to say. If you do this well enough, if you put enough effort into doing this correctly (and it doesn’t need to be perfect), they will know that you finally understand where they’re coming from and that they’ve been heard by you, and their opinion has been validated. By demonstrating you understand their position, you go from being part of the problem to being a real person. They might not like you, but they will at least (if begrudgingly so) respect you.

End on a High Note

When you successfully reach this state of your discussion, it’s essential that you be careful with your choice of words. There’s a good chance that the spammer will leave your community alone now that they know that their opinion has been recognized. At the very least, you should see an immediate reduction in the number of times they attempt to cause harm.

If they do continue to harass you or your community, it’s possible that you failed to address the primary reason that they’re upset. Open dialogue with them again and follow the steps above from the beginning, or check to see that you haven’t fallen into a common pitfall or mistake.

Common Pitfalls and Mistakes

Below is a list of common examples of mistakes people make during negotiations:

Getting to “You’re Right” instead of “That’s Right”

When using tactical empathy, remember that the purpose of the exercise is to bring their beliefs to the conscious mind and demonstrate agreement. If you attempt to tell them what they should believe, you may instead get a “you’re right” and fail to see any change. The difference is subtle, but important. Make sure that the other side actually feels heard, and that you’ve fully understood their position.

Don’t Try to Correct their Opinion

As a reminder: do not attempt to correct or modify their opinion. Remember the purpose of this process. It is not to modify their position or opinion, it’s only to mirror their opinion to stop identifying you and your community as a threat.

Be Careful with Tone and Wording

The methodology outlined in this article is designed for conversations in real-life, especially over the phone. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get the spammer on an audio call, so it’s essential to be patient with the process and careful with your wording. Formal grammar like punctuation can make a sentence feel more serious or threatening. Use casual phrasing and make an occasional spelling mistake to show you’re human. If you’re uncertain about tone, read the sentence out loud while sounding as angry as you can, and adjust accordingly.

Remember to Ask for Help

The process outlined here can be easily undermined by others who aren’t involved in the process. If you’re working to negotiate with a spammer but another moderator is threatening them in a different conversation, you won’t see any changes in their behavior. Communicate with your team on the strategy you plan to use, and remember to ask for emotional support or step away if it becomes too taxing.

Can High-Conflict People be Helped?

There will be some of you who believe that after getting this far, you may be on the path to rehabilitating a person like this. The mistake is believing that you are further along than you really are, or that you’re qualified to help someone struggling to control their emotions. The truth is, getting to “that’s right” is only 1% of the process.

Even if you’re a clinical psychologist, you wouldn’t be getting paid for your work, at least not this work. Attempting to provide support via text chat will have diminishing returns. Attempting to show somebody like this the “error of their ways” may result in all of the work you have done being reversed.

Instead, you must focus on the people who want your help and who need it- this being the people in your community. Empower the people who are truly deserving of your time and energy. At the end of the day, you’re a human and a moderator. Your primary focus in this realm is to make sure your community is safe and stays safe- and if you’ve managed to get the persistent spammer to stop then you’ve accomplished what it is you’ve aimed to do.