What do you do when someone verbally attacks you for no apparent reason? What do you do when someone over reacts to the smallest perceived slight – even when you didn’t mean to offend them? How do you handle the critical, angry, and self-absorbed bad behavior of high conflict people?
It’s not easy.
Rule #1: Don’t Take it Personally.
The first thing to remember when high conflict people are going off on you, is that, whatever they are carrying on about has nothing to do with you. It is really all about them.
Of course, it’s hard not to take someone else’s bad behavior personally – especially when it is directed at you!
Trust me. I get it.
From time to time, people respond to things that I write with, shall I say, something less than positive intent. For example, one recent comment I got started with “I’m here to call bullshit on the whole charade.” (And that was just the first sentence!)
Now, I have to admit, when I first read that comment, my stomach clenched. Not only did I feel like the reader was personally attacking me, but I have to tell you that I was not feeling particularly positive myself in that moment.
Naturally, the lawyer in me wanted to verbally lash back – hard! But, my experience working with people going through divorce has taught me that the person who wrote that comment is actually in a lot of pain.
As hurtful as it may have been for me to read that comment, it actually had nothing to do with me. The comment was a reflection of the writer’s pain and problems. Taking that comment personally would have been the worst thing for me to do.
Rule #2: Lend High Conflict People an E.A.R.
E.A.R. stands for: Empathy, Attention and Respect.
High conflict people are not necessarily bad people. They are hurt and defensive. If you listen and respond to high conflict people with empathy, attention, and respect, you may be surprised at how quickly you can minimize drama and avoid a full-blown war.
While the last thing you probably feel like doing when someone has just lied to you, criticized you, or threatened you, is to listen to them with empathy, it is the most productive thing you can do if you don’t want to heighten the conflict.
The “E” in E.A.R. = Empathy
Empathy is different from sympathy.
When you listen with empathy to someone, you listen for the pain and frustration they are feeling. You connect with that pain and frustration on a human level. You have undoubtedly felt the same feelings yourself from time to time. Listening with empathy shows the person who is talking that you care.
Listening with sympathy, however, implies that you feel sorry for the person who is talking. You may pity them. That pity creates separation, rather than connection. You can feel sorry for someone even if you don’t care about them at all.
The “A” in E.A.R. stands for “Attention.”
High conflict people often feel ignored. They long for attention. That is one of the reasons that they get into so many conflicts in the first place. Giving them attention (while at the same time not reacting to their drama) can help neutralize a high conflict situation.
Of course, giving them attention doesn’t mean that you let them make you a punching bag for hours and hours. You do have to set limits. You don’t have to agree with everything they say, or listen to them forever. But if you can listen long enough for them to feel heard, they will usually start to calm down.
The “R” in E.A.R. means “Respect.”
Finally, high conflict people need respect. Because of their personalities, respect is something they are not used to getting from other people. They may get negative attention from their never-ending conflicts, but they rarely get respect.
While you may think that respecting a high conflict person is impossible, if you dig a little deeper and put your ego aside, you can probably find something in that person that you respect. Maybe you respect their ability to speak their mind. Maybe you respect how they stand up for themselves. Don’t focus on the fact that they are trying to smash you while they stand up for themselves. Do your best to be positive.
Rule # 3: Use BIFF Responses
Despite how they come across, high conflict people are really very frightened. They lack self-awareness and have difficulty changing their behavior. They also have problems accepting responsibility for their problems.
For all of these reasons, communicating with a high conflict person can be challenging. They may threaten and attack you, but if you threaten and attack them back, you only escalate the conflict. If you want to communicate with a high conflict person effectively, you need to take a different approach.
You need to use B.I.F.F.
The “B” in B.I.F.F. stands for “Brief.”
When a high conflict person (especially your high conflict spouse) sends you a hostile email, text, or other communication, the best way you can respond is to be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
Keeping your response brief will reduce the chances that you will get dragged into a prolonged angry text or email exchange with a high conflict person. The less you write, the less material you give the other person to respond to.
Being brief will also require you to avoid counter-attacking or criticizing the other person. (Obviously, doing either of those things will only cause more drama!)
The “I” in B.I.FF. stands for “Informative.”
Being informative means that you stick to the facts. Tell the other person what is necessary, but no more. Don’t share your opinions, or comment on the facts. Don’t give advice. Just convey the facts.
Being informative also means that you don’t spend a lot of time trying to defend yourself to the other person. When I was responding to the negative comment on my website, I responded by referring to research facts. Period. I didn’t go into a whole long explanation of how I was right and that person was wrong.
If anyone besides you and the high conflict person is going to see your response, then you will also want to use facts to correct any inaccurate statements that the high conflict person made. When you do that, though, remember to stick to the facts. Don’t throw your own sarcastic comments in with the facts, too.
The first “F” in B.I.F.F. is for “Friendly.”
Your response should be friendly. (Again, I know that ‘friendly’ is the last thing you probably feel like being.) Being sarcastic, threatening, or unpleasant will only intensify your conflict. Remember, if you react to high conflict people in anger, you will only trigger yet another angry response from them.
Being friendly doesn’t mean that you have to gush, or to pretend to feel something you don’t feel. You’re not trying to make the person your best friend. You’re just trying to be mature, civilized, and polite.
You will also want to avoid being sickly-sweet. No one, not even a high conflict person, likes to be patronized.
The final “F” in B.I.F.F. stands for “Firm.”
Being firm means that you set limits in a confident, non-threatening way. If you need information from the other person by a certain date, tell them that. But, don’t turn the deadline into an ultimatum. Simply state the deadline and move on.
Being firm also means not asking open-ended questions when you want to avoid getting into a back-and-forth dialogue. If you need additional information, then go ahead and ask for it. Otherwise, politely end your correspondence once you’ve conveyed whatever information you need to convey.
The Challenge of Dealing With High Conflict People
Effectively dealing with high conflict people takes an enormous amount of self-control. Unpleasant, demanding, and unreasonable people are not fun to deal with. Even when you are a professional, a high conflict person can still push your buttons.
If you happen to be going through a divorce, and the high conflict person you are dealing with is your spouse, you are even more likely to have a tough time managing your emotions when you deal with him or her. But, just as with any skill, practice will improve your performance.
Practice listening to your high conflict spouse with E.A.R. Practice using B.I.F.F. responses whenever you can. (HINT: It’s much easier to do this when you are corresponding in writing, via text or email. Being able to come up with a B.I.F.F. response in the middle of a conversation takes a lot of practice.)
While you may never get to the point where you enjoy dealing with high conflict people, you may get to the point where you can minimize the drama. When you do, your life, like mine, will become a whole lot easier.
This article is based on the work of lawyer, therapist, and mediator, Bill Eddy, Founder of The High Conflict Institute. If you are divorcing a high conflict spouse, check out Bill’s Books, “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes,” and B.I.F.F.: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns.
It doesn’t matter whether your divorce is high conflict or not. You need all the help you can get. CLICK THE BUTTON below to get your FREE Divorce Tool Kit. It has the checklists and worksheets you will need to help you through your divorce.
NOTE: The links to the books on this page are affiliate links. If you buy these books using these links, I will get a small commission from Amazon. You are welcome to buy these books from anywhere you like. The Amazon links are just here for your convenience.