Not all people you encounter in your personal or professional life will be equipped to appropriately handle conflict. These so-called “high conflict people” are difficult to deal with, mostly because they blame others for whatever the issue may be, while refusing to take any personal accountability for the problem or its solution. Sadly, these people will frequently “lose it” and actually increase conflict with personal attacks, extreme behavior, and unmanageable emotions. To them, it is perfectly okay to send a hostile e-mail or text, or spread a vicious rumor via Facebook or engage in other social media attacks and meltdowns. The key to dealing with these high conflict people and their verbal attacks is to manage your response.
A useful tool to use in formulating your response is a book called BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy. Instead of reacting in the same malicious way and becoming a high conflict individual yourself, the book encourages you to make your responses Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm (BIFF). The goal is to avoid triggering defensiveness in the other person and to work towards cordially ending the conversation at hand. Here’s a simple description of each step:
An important thing to remember here is that the more you say in your response to the other person, the more room you are giving that person to react and become defensive. Therefore, limit your response to 2-5 sentences, regardless of how long the other person’s initial statement is. Try to avoid admonishments, advice, and apologies. It’s not a bad idea to have someone else review your brief response. After all, that person may catch unnecessary language that you may have overlooked.
Provide a sentence or two of direct, helpful information on the matter being discussed. So instead of focusing on the opinions about each other, you are shifting discussion to an objective subject. You want to avoid making negative comments or countering any allegations that were made against you in the initial statement. It is not necessary to engage in matters that are the high conflict person’s “opinion.” That would only renew the argument, and diminish your chances of reaching a consensus. It may be important to briefly correct something that has been a clear misstatement of a fact.
It is very hard to play nice, especially when you just faced a verbal attack. However, it is very important for you to remain calm and pleasant. For example, instead of antagonizing the other person in your response, you can say something like: “ I respect your concern with this matter.” Or just: “Thank you for responding.” It also would not be a bad idea to end your response with a friendly comment. For example, “I hope you have a good weekend.” “With best regards.”
Lastly, you want to use your response to end the hostile conversation and disengage from the high conflict situation. The book suggests giving two clear choices for future action. If you need a response, set a firm reply date. Avoid sounding defensive because that will only prompt further communication with the other person. The goal is to be firm in your response, while still maintaining a level of amicability.
The reason why your response is so important is because it will set the tone for the future of your relationship with that person. Bill Eddy points out three goals that you may consider with a high conflict individual. You may want to manage the relationship with that person, as would be the case in a work environment or personal life, you may want to reduce the relationship, or end it altogether. So every time you make a BIFF response, ask yourself whether it is bringing you one step closer to achieving your goal.