If you’ve got high-conflict people in your life, you’re probably no stranger to angry text messages or long, blaming emails. Maybe you’ve even been the target of a social media meltdown. The insults hurt, and when someone throws you under the bus, it’s hard not to hit back with some harsh words of your own. But experts in high-conflict communication say that’s not the best response.
While launching a kneejerk, retaliatory verbal missile of your own might make you feel vindicated for a moment, it will only escalate the conflict, which guarantees that more hurt will soon be on its way back to you. And, because you’ve now gotten down in the mud yourself, it is hard to feel good about your response—you’re better than this. But…if you don’t fight fire with fire, what can you do? You can’t ignore them, so how should you respond to hotheads, blamers, and antagonists?
Fortunately, there is a better way. It’s BIFF.
BIFF is an acronym that stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm. BIFF is a four-part way to respond to insults, accusations, and hurtful comments. A BIFF response not only puts a stop to hostilities, but also leaves you feeling good about yourself. A BIFF response is:
BRIEF. When your response is brief, it gives the other person very little to respond to. So even if what you received from the other person was several pages long, it’s important to keep your response short. Three or four sentences is usually sufficient – saying too much risks kindling an argument.
INFORMATIVE. Provide only information; keep your response void of emotion, opinion, argument, drama, and defense. In a Psychology Today article, Bill Eddy, the Training Director at the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, explained, “You don’t need to defend yourself when another person is being hostile. It’s not about you. It’s about their inability to manage their emotions and responses. Just stay focused on providing relevant information.”
FRIENDLY. Start with a friendly greeting. Show some empathy for the other person, and be sure to close on a positive, friendly note. This can have a calming effect on the other person which may help de-escalate the situation. It also demonstrates that you have good self-control.
FIRM. End your note or bring the conversation to a close. The idea is to prevent the situation from segueing into an argument. If you need an answer from the other person, request a yes or no by a certain date or time, or offer two choices. Then end on a friendly note as described above.
In his Psychology Today article, Bill Eddy described a letter from a fired employee to her former human resources manager. In the letter, the disgruntled woman made statements such as, “You had no right to ruin my career…” and “Your corrupt company will be exposed sooner or later.” She also said she had asked three times for a list of her previous job duties “and you refuse to respond.”
The human resources manager’s first draft response was defensive, saying the company had done nothing wrong. He reminded her that she should not set foot on company property and told her, “We will have you arrested if you attempt to do so.” Eddy notes that this response was brief and informative, but not friendly and firm, and thus guaranteed to trigger more hostility. The manager rewrote the letter, this time using BIFF as a guideline:
Dear Roberta, I’m glad you are making progress and getting interviews. I really want you to find a company that’s a good fit for you. I am attaching a copy of your job duties. I hope that helps! Best wishes! –Jerry
This letter checks all the boxes! It’s brief, informative, friendly and firm. Very likely, it defused Roberta’s hostility and ended the conversation.
If you would like to learn more about using the BIFF method, you can enroll in an online course on the High Conflict Institute website (highconflictinstitute.com). Many courses cost as little as $20. Course topics include, How to Write a BIFF Response; Who Are High Conflict People?; Dealing With High Conflict People in Court; and Is Divorce Mediation for You? Customized training and individual consults are also available.
Reference: Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, BIFF: 4 Ways to Respond to Hostile Comments, Psychology Today.com, September 30, 2018.