Responding to Hostile Emails from High Conflict Personalities
Published on December 2, 2010 by Randi Kreger in Stop Walking on Eggshells
This is taken from the book Splitting: Protecting Yourself When Divorcing a High Conflict Personality that will be out in July, 2011 from New Harbinger. There is a booklet version available now at http://www.BPDCentral.com. The B.I.F.F. method was developed by attorney Bill Eddy in 2007. Please see Bill’s site at http://www.HighConflictInstitute.com for the copyrighted original article.
Keep your responses brief, informative, friendly, and firm
When dealing with a high conflict personality–especially during divorce–nasty emails from both directions are common. For best results, never send one. And use the B.I.F.F. technique described below to respond to them.
Remember BIFF When Responding to Hostile E-mails
Hostile e-mail exchanges have become huge in divorce. Blamers love sending them and use them to attack you, your family and friends, and professionals. It’s extremely tempting to respond the same way. Hostile e-mail has also become huge in family court, as a document used to show someone’s bad behavior.
While you are encouraged to save copies of hostile e-mail sent to you, it is very important that you not send hostile e-mails to anyone. They will be used against you. Instead, assertively use a BIFF response, as described next, and encourage people in your support system to do the same. It will save you a lot of wasted time and energy to be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
Do You Need to Respond?
Much of hostile mail does not need a response. Letters from exes, angry neighbors, irritating coworkers, or attorneys do not usually have legal significance. The letter itself has no power, unless you give it power.
Often, it is emotional venting aimed at relieving the writer’s anxiety. If you respond with similar emotions and hostility, you will simply escalate things without satisfaction, and just get a new piece of hostile mail back. In most cases, you are better off not responding. Some letters and e-mails develop power when copies are filed in a court or complaint process-or simply get sent to other people. In these cases, it may be important to respond to inaccurate statements with accurate statements of fact. If so, use a BIFF response.
Keep your response brief. This will reduce the chances of a prolonged and angry back-and-forth. The more you write, the more material the other person has to criticize. Keeping it brief signals that you don’t wish to engage in a dialogue. Just make your response and end your e-mail.
Don’t take your partner’s statements personally and don’t respond with a personal attack. Avoid focusing on comments about the other person’s character, such as saying he is rude, insensitive, or stupid. It just escalates the conflict and keeps it going. Make sure to avoid the three “A’s”: admonishments, advice and apologies. You don’t have to defend yourself to someone you disagree with. If your friends still like you, you don’t have to prove anything to people who don’t.
The main reason to respond to hostile mail is to correct inaccurate statements others might see. “Just the facts” is a good thing to keep in mind. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make, not on the inaccurate statements the other person made: “Just to clear things up, I was out of town on February 12, so I would not have been the person who was making loud noises that day.”
Avoid negative comments, sarcasm, and threats. Avoid personal remarks about the other person’s intelligence, ethics, or moral behavior. If the other person has a high-conflict personality, you will have no success at reducing the conflict by making personal attacks. While most people can ignore personal attacks or might think harder about what you are saying, high-conflict people feel they have no choice but to respond in anger-and keep the conflict going. Personal attacks rarely lead to insight or positive change.
While you may be tempted to write in anger, you are more likely to achieve your goals by writing in a friendly manner. Consciously thinking about a friendly response will increase your chances of getting a friendly or neutral response in return. If your goal is to end the conflict, then being friendly has the greatest likelihood of success. Don’t give the other person a reason to get defensive and keep responding.
This does not mean that you have to be overly friendly. Just make your message sound a little relaxed and nonantagonistic. If appropriate, say you recognize your partner’s concerns. Brief comments that show your empathy and respect will generally calm the other person down, even if only for a short time.
In a nonthreatening way, clearly tell the other person your information or position on an issue; for example, “That’s all I’m going to say on this issue.” Be careful not to make comments that invite more discussion, unless you are negotiating an issue or want to keep a dialogue going back and forth. Avoid comments that leave an opening, such as, “I hope you will agree with me that…” This invites the other person to tell you, “I don’t agree.”
Sound confident and don’t ask for more information, if you want to end the back-and-forth. A confident-sounding person is less likely to be challenged with further e-mails. If you get more e-mails, you can ignore them, if you have already sufficiently addressed the inaccurate information. If you need to respond again, keep it even briefer, and do not emotionally engage. In fact, it often helps to just repeat the key information using the same words.
Example of BIFF Response
Joe’s hostile e-mail: “Jane, I can’t believe you are so stupid as to think I’m going to let you take the children to your boss’s birthday party during my parenting time. Have you no memory of the last six conflicts we’ve had about my parenting time? Or are you having an affair with him? I always knew you would do anything to get ahead! In fact, I remember coming to your office party and witnessing you making a total fool of yourself, including flirting with everyone from the CEO down to the mail-room clerk! Are you high on something? Haven’t you gotten your finances together enough to support yourself yet, without flinging yourself at every Tom, Dick, and Harry?”…
Jane’s response: “Thank you for responding to my request to take the children to my office party. Just to clarify, the party will be from 3:00 to 5:00 on Friday at the office, and there will be approximately thirty people there, including several other parents and their school-age children. There will be no alcohol because it is a family-oriented firm, and there will be family-oriented activities. I think it will be a good experience for the kids to see me at my workplace. Since you do not agree, then, of course, I will respect that and withdraw my request, because I recognize that it is your parenting time.”
Comment: Jane kept it brief and did not engage in defending herself. Since this was just between the two of them, she didn’t need to respond. If he sent this e-mail to friends, coworkers, or family members (which high-conflict people often do), she would need to respond to the larger group with more information, such as the following.
Jane’s group response: “Dear friends and family, as you know, Joe and I had a difficult divorce. He has sent you a private e-mail showing correspondence between us about a parenting schedule matter. I hope you will see this as a private matter and understand that you do not need to respond or get involved in any way. Almost everything he has said is in anger and not at all accurate. If you have any questions for me personally, please feel free to contact me and I will clarify anything I can. I appreciate your friendship and support.”