How do you recognise people who are likely to behave in ways that are conflict-driven, controlling, or manipulative, in ways that are likely to stop you from hiring them, dating them, or marrying them?

As a couple and family therapist, and workplace conflict specialist, I’ve developed a shorthand strategy for identifying potentially difficult and demanding people. It’s all about recognising and working with that ‘hunch’, that small disquiet sense that something is not quite right, when all of the other information seems either confusing, or positive.

Controlling people put a lot of effort and energy into getting you to like, respect, or admire them. And they often distract you from the feelings of discomfort. They are just overly complimentary, charming and attentive. Perhaps they offer enthusiastic help you didn’t ask for, but you reluctantly accept because, well, they’ve made it hard to say no.

Also think about control in terms of passive resistance, which is why I like to talk about controlling people, rather than high conflict people. Sometimes the behaviours you see are subtle and resistant. You get thrown off track by their emotional reactions, you feel uncomfortable with their stubbornness and intensity.

One way of bringing this all together is to apply the Five Key Words Test. One of the techniques I use in initial interviews with clients is to ask them to use the first five words they can think of to describe the other person in this difficult relationship.

If five, or more of the words and phrases listed below seem to apply to most of the behaviours in your interactions with that person, it is highly likely you are dealing with a controlling and conflict-driven person:

*Abrupt   * Defensive   * Needy   * Highly  * Stressed  * Know It All  * Centre of Attention

* Demanding  * Cold  * Bossy  * Self-Absorbed  * Bragger  * Drama Queen

* Domineering  * Inflexible  * Over-The-Top  * Short–Fuse  * Controlling  * PigHeaded

* Always Right  * Intolerant  * Very Charming  * Very Sexual  * Direct  * Unpredictable

* Full of Excuses  * Highly Critical  * Judgemental

How did you go? If you’ve ticked five or more, it’s time to be alert to risks and put some thoughtful strategies in place to manage the relationship.

Now I want to point out that, like all forms of assessment and enquiry, you should be trying to take a scientific approach. That is, look for evidence, challenge your assumptions and you always be aware of evidence that disproves your theory. When I’m working in this model I try to be aware of my own bias (towards proving that I’m right in my assessment), as much as I am trying to be aware of my client’s potential bias in this situation. Put in other words, we should always be generous and compassionate in our thoughts about other people’s behaviours and motivations.

Using this Five Keyword Test may help you quickly spot potentially difficult, or even dangerous relationships. Like any list, it’s not complete and you could probably add several more of your own words, or phrases. Take heed before you invite people into your life by hiring, dating, or getting too involved in the relationship. Sometimes you may even have enough information after one, or two encounters.

You can learn more about conflict confidence. The common strategies we use to manage relationships are not going to apply here and this strategy might just assist you in avoiding a lot of stress and disappointment.