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Blog Short #148: How to Deal With People Who Like to Pick Fights

Photo by suteishi, Courtesy of iStockPhoto

There are many reasons someone might pick a fight, some serious and some not so serious. Either way, if you’re on the receiving end, it helps to have some clue about why it’s happening so you have a better feel for how to handle it.

Let’s start by listing why someone might pick a fight, and then I’ll give you some strategies.

Common Causes

Having a Bad Day

Most everyone has had this experience. You’re having a bad day or maybe in a mood and feeling irritable. You pick a fight, sometimes over nothing, to discharge your negative emotions.

You’ve heard the expression, “Misery loves company?” Picking a fight spreads the bad feelings around, although it doesn’t usually give you any real relief.

Built-up Anger Over Unresolved Problems

When you’ve had the same conversations over and over about an issue without resolving it, you build up anger and resentment. At some point, you get triggered by something else, and your anger comes to a head. You pick a fight out of the blue with the person involved in the issue.

In this case, you’re expressing frustration with an ongoing situation but not directly addressing it. By picking a fight, you project your anger into less significant situations and express it without tackling the real problem.

More Serious Causes

Can’t Contain Your Own Emotions

Some people literally can’t contain their emotions, especially negative ones. By “contain,” I mean feeling and holding them while working them through.

The discomfort of that process is too great, so the feelings boomerang back out as soon as they’re felt. You need to discharge them quickly, and the easiest way to do this is to make someone else feel them for you.

It’s like a game of hot potato – you feel something too hot to handle and quickly throw it to someone else.

This is an unconscious process and happens almost automatically. It’s different than just having a bad day. It’s a regular pattern of dealing with difficult emotions.

People who do this often have a history of painful experiences and unresolved issues that find their way into current relationships. They tend to pick fights everywhere – at home, work, with friends, etc.

Need to Create Distance

Another reason someone habitually picks fights is the need for emotional distance. We all occasionally need time alone, but we usually just ask for it. The person who uses fighting to get it is working on a deeper issue.

Here’s how it works:

You’re getting along great with your partner (or a friend or family member). You feel close and appreciative of the relationship. Suddenly, your partner inexplicably picks a fight, sometimes over nothing, and initiates a conflict that escalates and ends in a standoff. The standoff continues until they feel too much distance and pull you back in.

The whole pattern repeats often.

People who engage in this pattern regularly likely have early attachment issues. If the attachment style is insecure, the person isn’t comfortable with either closeness or distance and swings back and forth between them. As soon as they get too close, they feel anxious and threatened, so they create space. Yet when they feel the distance, they feel separation anxiety and move back in to close the gap.

This pattern is normal during specific developmental periods like toddlerhood and early adolescence but should resolve before adulthood. When it’s not, it becomes a personality characteristic that requires some treatment to overcome.

Define Oneself

The next reason people pick fights is to define themselves. These folks didn’t successfully develop a solid sense of self during childhood and adolescence, and as adults need to define and redefine who they are.

They do this by defining who they’re not. By disagreeing, picking fights, arguing, being a devil’s advocate, dismissing, or projecting, they’re creating boundaries  (like outlines) around themselves, which gives them a sense of who they are. Their “I” becomes “not like you.”

Narcissists do this more subtly with one-upping, disagreeing with everything you say, becoming aloof, being smug, or saying things that provoke you and make you angry, and then watching you calmly with a superior attitude. The message you get is,

“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you control yourself? I’m calm. I’m in control. I’m more mature than you are.”

They’re defining themselves as better, but underneath all that bravado, they feel like nothing. They’ve created a pseudo-self to cover up the fact they don’t have a real sense of self.

Get Attention

The last reason is to get attention. If someone’s not getting the attention they need or want, starting a conflict will get it, even if it’s negative attention.

Children do this a lot. If they haven’t had enough time with their parents, or their parents seem emotionally inaccessible for too long, they do something provocative to get a rise and bring the attention back to them. In this case, they’ve projected their anger so the parent feels it and reacts. It’s not good attention, but it’s better than nothing.

Adults can use this same behavior when they need attention. Instead of discussing it with the person involved, they project it. They may begin picking at the other person by micro-managing, nagging, or being overtly hostile to get a rise. It does the job.

The Strategies

1. Provide space.

For the first scenario – having a bad day – allow some space. If you know the person well and they’re generally reasonable, you can make an empathetic comment or ask a question like,

“Are you really upset with me or maybe just having a bad day? Is there anything I can do to help?”

If you don’t think that will be well-received, give them space and time alone.

2. Go for the feeling.

Listen and focus on how the person feels. Say something like,

“I see you’re upset. Tell me what’s bothering you, and I’ll listen. ”

Use the four-part strategy we reviewed last week – Listen, Clarify, Verify, and Identify.

For the person who can’t contain their emotions, being able to share the feelings can help diffuse them, although not always. If you’re rebuffed, and they continue to bait you, they aren’t willing to confront their emotions.

3. Opt out.

Someone who needs to fight for any of the above reasons and won’t respond to empathetic concern is telling you there’s nothing you can do to improve things. In this case, opt out. Don’t respond.

Leave the area if you can or refuse to respond, and don’t feel guilty about it. For the person who needs distance, give it to them.

4. Set a boundary.

This one’s similar to opting out but not quite as extreme. You can say,

“I’m willing to hear what’s on your mind, but I’m not willing to fight. Let me know when you’re ready to do that.

A caveat here: Sometimes, you can participate in a heated disagreement with someone without leaving or backing out. That’s not, however, the case with people who make a habit of fighting. You have to consider the purpose. Is this person genuinely interested in working through a problem, or are they simply projecting their bad feelings into you to solve other issues they won’t deal with?

5. Try therapy.

If you’re unsure of exactly what’s going on, and your attempts to resolve it fail, see a therapist alone or with the person you’re having the problem with. Often a therapist can see things you don’t and help clarify what’s happening, which is very helpful.

With all of these strategies, your goal is to avoid being used or abused to deal with someone’s misplaced emotions, yet when possible, to help diffuse or redirect them.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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