BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media by Bill Eddy, LCSW Esq
You may be dealing with a high conflict personality when you receive an email, social media post, or personal attack that is intensively emotional and out of proportion to the problem, out of context, very personal, which blames you with the speaker feeling no responsibility for the problem or the solution. It’s often shared with others to emphasize how “blameworthy” you are and how “blameless” the speaker is. They really pushed your buttons and you immediately feel the need to react in the same way you were attacked.
This book answers the question: What is the Best Way To Communicate With High Conflict People? It matters because the attacker tends to be in a position of temporary or long term authority over some aspect of your life that is important to you.
I found it helpful to learn that the secret is that these personal attacks are not about you. There are about the blamer’s inability to control himself and solve problems. They can’t manage their own emotions, they feel like a victim. They lash out at you. The only thing you can do is to manage your response.
The best way to communicate with a high conflict personality is to be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF). A BIFF response is a balanced approach which is not mean or confrontational, yet helps set limits and focus on solving problems. Here is a brief overview.
The point is to avoid triggering defensiveness and focusing them on problem solving information. Don’t give too many words for the other person to react to. The more you say, the more likely you are to trigger another blaming response.
By keeping it brief, there is less potentially negative information to trigger defensiveness. Writing a good BIFF response is more about what you leave out (avoiding all those nasty comments).
Give a sentence or two of straight, useful information on the subject being discussed. It shifts the discussion to an objective subject, rather than opinions about each other. Avoid getting emotionally hooked into defending yourself unnecessarily. Information should be focused on something positive, friendly and future focused.
A list of “do nots” will trigger almost anyone’s defensiveness. A friendly response provides encouraging words, optimism that problems can be solved, and a sense of connection between the writer and the reader.
Being friendly can calm the person down. Your response may be able to move them back into logical thinking. The combination of being friendly and informative seems to help the attacker shift in ways they can’t do for themselves.
You can also end it with a friendly comment. For example: “I hope you have a nice weekend”. “I hope your family is doing well”. “Warmest regards”. “Best wishes”
Use your BIFF response to end a hostile conversation respectfully or to narrow the communication to focus on two choices regarding a solution. Giving the other person a choice of two options for problem solving is a good way of being friendly. Giving two choices focuses attention on thinking logically about the two choices, rather than having them feel defensive about having no choice at all or feeling overwhelmed by too many choices.
It is not helpful to say “stop doing negative behaviors”. It is helpful to suggest positive behaviors and/or deadlines for change.
It is useful to inform about possible consequences, also known as setting limits. Threats are intended to be threatening, whereas informing about consequences can be done by someone who intends to be helpful.
If a person who has communicated with you in a high conflict manner feels respected, calm and focused on neutral information, they may be able to let go of the conflict and get themselves back to calm, logical thought. They can relax and no longer feel they have to defend themselves, so they no longer need to attack you.
It really helps to have someone look it over before sending your BIFF response. The book is full of examples that illustrate how to use empathy, attention and respect to respond to the attack and set goals before you respond.
I enjoyed reading about when is it best not to respond, when you really have to quickly respond, who to include in your response and how not to expand the conflict, and how to think through your goals in responding instead of reacting with blame of your own.
Bill Eddy describes common mistakes we make in responding to a high conflict persons such as giving unsolicited advice or admonishments, and why you might avoid apologies. He is particularly helpful in explaining how a high conflict person will recruit other people to advocate for their negative solutions, emotions and behavior and how you can be skillfully manipulated into being a supporter of such a person.
This book concludes with techniques such as the art of indirect confrontation and the reasons for avoiding negative feedback that will likely escalate the problems you are experiencing.
I use the concepts in this book in my legal practice every day. I wish I had learned them 30 years ago when I started practicing law. These are skills we can all learn to manage our relationships with clients, opposing counsel, bosses, and family members. It takes practice, but a BIFF response gets easier to write with practice. Sometimes difficult people on the other end start doing BIFFs too, since they respect your ability to stay calm. So, live longer with less stress by applying these concepts in everyday life.