As we welcome in another new year, the talk of resolutions is rampant. Self care seems to be a focus for many as we begin to discover the toll stress can really take. Much of our collective stress can be attributed to how we communicate today. We’re living in an era in which we can communicate instantly. Too often this leads to stressful and negative interactions. If we’re reacting and responding instantly, we’re often reacting emotionally, and if the person with whom we’re communicating has a high conflict personality, personal attacks, blaming, and gross disrespect are likely to be present.
Bill Eddy, author of BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Emails and Social Media Meltdowns, makes the distinction that the most difficult type of people with whom we communicate have high conflict personalities. Their general lack of awareness paired with their inability to manage their own emotions lead to an inability to resolve conflict. Eddy uses the term “blamespeak” for the type of communication high conflict personalities use. Blamespeak is easy to spot because it is usually hard to ignore. It’s characteristics can include:
- an emotionally intense tone that doesn’t seem to match the tone of the interaction or issue
- personal attacks about your intelligence, decision making, morals, looks, etc
- the blamespeaker absolving his/herself from responsibility within a conflict with the belief that it is all your fault
- being shared with others so the emphasis of why you should be blamed and why the blamespeaker should be considered blameless, can be highlighted
- having an intense negative feeling when you read the blamespeak
- wanting to respond with your own blamespeak
When we feel as if we have been attacked or blamed for something, its a natural response to want to fire right back. Taking a beat to pause so you can manage your own emotions will be your most valuable action. Let’s face it, some of the most volatile interactions we can have may involve people with whom we need and/or want to maintain a relationship (family members, friends, colleagues, bosses, etc). Sometimes, not responding at all is best, but if that isn’t possible, creating a BIFF response may help to de-escalate a situation by allowing you take some calm and collected control.
BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm (Eddy, 2011). Eddy makes sure to note that while it may sound easy, creating a BIFF response is actually pretty difficult because of the emotional aspect. As with most things, practice will allow these responses to get easier and easier to generate. Let’s take a look at the elements more closely and some example responses.
Brief is just how it sounds. A BIFF response should be short no matter how long the blamespeak message. We already know the high conflict personalities have a difficult time managing their own emotions, so we want to make sure we’re not triggering another blamespeak response. Remember, there’s a conflict occurring, so the focus should be on conflict resolution.
Informative sentences should be useful in helping solve the problem and void of your opinion. Sometimes there may not be a clear problem to resolve as it may simply be the emotions or personality at play, but giving useful information that’s related to the issue may still be helpful.
Friendly sentiments may be difficult to follow through on, but they are an important aspect of your response.
Firm endings let’s the other person know you are disengaging from the situation. While a firm ending is essentially you saying, “this is all I am going to say on the matter”, you may encounter a situation in which you need a response. Setting boundaries will be helpful here. Whether its establishing a time frame for a response or giving the person two choices, you can still remain firm with your response.
Example #1 (Friends/Family)
Angela sends a group chat of a photo of the tattoo she got while she was on vacation, captioned with “Love my new ink!” She included her mom, Phyllis, and sister, Meredith, in the chat.
Meredith: “It’s so neat, but mom is gonna go ballistic!”
Angela: “She might, but she’ll get over it. I AM an adult after all.”
Phyllis: “Oh, Angela. Why did you have to go and get a tattoo? You are beautiful just the way you are!”
Michael: “No offense, but its your body, Angela, and the tattoo looks nice.”
Angela: “It’s not a big deal, mom! God, you act like I am a child! You’re prob going to say next that it isn’t moral or somethin’.”
Meredith: “Gees, Angela. A little harsh, don’t ya think?”
Angela: “Don’t even start with me, Meredith! You always take mom’s side! Like you’re some kind of goody two shoes! I mean ARE YOU FOR REAL, RN?!?!? OMG, that’s rich. As if you you’ve never done anything mom wouldn’t be happy about. You’re such an idiot. “
Phyllis: “Angela! How dare you speak to me and your sister that way? So disrespectful! You should apologize right now and think about how your words hurt others.”
Phyllis’ reply to Angela would be considered brief, but it’s not informative, friendly, or firm. Her response actually keeps the door open for more emotional and negative responses. Here’s what a BIFF response might look like:
Phyllis: “Ok, Angela, I don’t want us arguing about this. If you love the tattoo than that is all that matters. I’m going to leave the chat now, but am looking forward to hearing about the rest of your trip when you come over Monday. See you next week!”
Example #2 (Exes/Co-parenting)
Jim sends an email to his ex-wife, Kelly, to see if he can switch visitation days with their daughter. His parents live a few hours away and are expecting other family from out of town, so they have planned a party at their local bar and grill.
Kelly’s email: Ha. I cannot even believe you would ask to switch your time! And are you dumb? Taking our daughter to a bar! What kind of father are you? Your parents don’t live in some busy metropolis, so I know the bar you’re referring to. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s where you met Pam to have your affair. I know, you say that isn’t true, but what else do people do in a bar? You must think I’m an idiot.
Jim’s email: Thanks for getting back to me so quickly about the switch. If I could clarify, the party is on Saturday from 2-4, on the restaurant side. Mom and dad are going to have children’s games and a face painter there since most of my family will be there with their children. Since you do not want to switch days, I’ll respect that decision and we’ll keep the visitation schedule the way it is.
Jim’s response is a great example of a BIFF response. It’s certainly brief and he keeps his opinion out of the informative portion. He also resists the opportunity to engage or counter the judgments and off topic issues Kelly brings up in her email. Jim starts and ends his response with a friendly and firm tone.
Example #3 (Work)
Holly travels to different work sites for her job responsibilities. Her co-worker, Nellie, is known around the office for inserting herself in matters that have nothing to do with her job duties as well as reports everything she discovers about her co-workers to their supervisor, Jan, regardless if they are true or false. Jan tries to reach Holly in her office as she is needing a report Holly has written, but has no luck. Nellie tells Jan that “she’s probably out doing whatever she wants as usual”. Jan reaches out through email.
Jan’s email: I tried calling you at your office, but you weren’t there. I’d like to know if you plan on coming in today because we need your report and figures. It’s a widely held belief that you take advantage of the traveling required and while we are all here preparing for one of our most important meetings, you’re no where to be found. So I guess its true! I certainly hope you have the information we need prepared and ready at 2pm today because if this doesn’t go well, it won’t be difficult to know why.
Holly’s initial email: Wow. I am not sure how to respond to the accusation that I am taking advantage of the travel time. I have a pretty good feeling who told you that, and if you want to know who’s taking advantage of her time while “on the clock”, we can certainly talk about that! I cannot even believe you are questioning whether or not I have my portion of the final report completed! When have I ever not met a deadline?! And for your information, I told you yesterday that I would be starting today at our Scranton office. Just let me do my job!
Holly’s response is brief enough, but it definitely does not meet the rest of the criteria for a BIFF response. In fact, she responded to blamespeak with more blamespeak. Fortunately, Holly did not send Jan her initial response. Here is the BIFF response she did send to Jan:
Holly’s email: Thanks for sharing your concern about where I am this morning. I sent you an email yesterday, following our lunch brain-storming session, making you aware that I needed to start today in Scranton. Please let me know if you’d like me to forward that to you. My report is complete and ready to go, and I am looking forward to seeing everyone at the meeting this afternoon.
Holly’s BIFF response demonstrates professionalism and is void of debating her work ethic. She does make it known that she did communicate her schedule to Jan by referencing her email as proof, but she allows Jan the choice to receive it again or not.
Example #4 (Social Media)
Kevin shares an article highlighting a political issue, to his Facebook page. Toby disagrees with Kevin’s post and comments right away.
Toby: “What are you stupid or something? That isn’t even true! But I’m sure whatever “news” source you used is the TRUE one, tho, right? Main stream media. Ha! It makes sense that people on your side of things would share this ridiculous garbage. Making up facts to suit your beliefs! …” [Toby goes on to state what he believes is the truth and why he feels the way he does about this issue]
Kevin: “Toby, thanks for sharing your perspective as it can be helpful to consider different sides, and I appreciate hearing yours. I was able to cross reference this article with half a dozen others and while a couple of them would be considered main stream media, the remaining would not. I’ll post links to all of them below. I am also going to turn off the notification alert for this post as I am not interested in debating. See ya next week at Poker!
Kevin’s response includes all BIFF elements. It would have been easy for Kevin to engage with Toby in a debate, but this was clearly a relationship that Kevin wanted to maintain. By stating he would be turning off the notifications, Kevin let’s Toby know that this is the end of this particular conversation.
The overarching theme to BIFF responses is maintaining control. We don’t have control over other people’s feelings, thoughts, or reactions, but we definitely have control over our own. If you’re considering beefing up your self care regimen, adding BIFF responses to high conflict and emotionally charged conversations may be beneficial step.