How to Respond to High Conflict Personalities
Since they lack self-awareness, high conflict personalities (HCP) make no effort to change their own behavior when things go badly.
They view complex problems and relationships as all another person’s responsibility and don’t see their own part in causing the problem or finding a solution. They don’t change their own behavior to try to make things better, so things don’t get better.
In fact, they are highly defensive about their own behavior, so they put all of their energy into defending their own actions and shifting the blame to others. Finding easy ways to avoid unnecessarily triggering this “HCP defensiveness” will make your life a lot easier.
Ordinary people are constantly changing their own behavior. They want to be more successful in their lives and they learn from their experience and their mistakes. But HCPs don’t seem to learn from their social mistakes – even when you try to make them see it. Forget about it! Don’t say: “look in the mirror, Buddy!” You’ll just make things worse.
That’s why BIFF (Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm) responses seem to work so well. They don’t trigger HCP defensiveness when done correctly. The goal is to disengage from the HCP’s blaming behavior. It’s not easy. It takes practice to change your own behavior while dealing with an HCP’s behavior. But by changing your own behavior, you can change the interaction and relationship dynamics. You can do it if you are a reasonable person who is self-aware and continues to learn and change.
I recommend that you have a private working theory that someone may be an HCP. You don’t tell the person and you don’t assume you are right. It really doesn’t matter! You simply focus on key methods to help in managing your relationship, whether or not you are dealing with an HCP. Use your private working theory to change your own behavior, not theirs.
While a BIFF response itself isn’t going to change anyone, it should help you end a conversation that has been escalating out of control. This may seem easy, but it’s actually pretty hard to do at first – while restraining yourself from doing Blamespeak back. It’s often helpful to step back and not respond right away. Here’s a short description of each step:
BRIEF: Your response should be very short, such as one paragraph of 2-5 sentences in most cases. It doesn’t matter how long the Blamespeak statement is that you are responding to. The point is to avoid triggering HCP defensiveness in the other person and focusing them on problem-solving information. Don’t give too many words for the other person to react to. The more you say, the more likely you are to trigger another Blamespeak response – which doesn’t do you any good. Keeping it brief isn’t easy. When I can, I give my BIFF responses to someone else to review before I send them out. The reviewer almost always cuts them down – often in half.
INFORMATIVE: Give a sentence or two of straight, useful information on the subject being discussed. If there isn’t a real subject or issue (because the personality is the issue), you can still give some related helpful information. It shifts the discussion to an objective subject, rather than opinions about each other. Don’t include any words of your opinion or defensiveness about the subject. Just provide straight information, presented in neutral terms, as briefly as possible.
FRIENDLY: This is often the hardest part, but very important. You can start out by saying something like: “thank you for telling me your opinion on this subject.” Or: “I appreciate your concerns.” Or just: “thanks for your email. Let me give you some information you may not have…” You can also end it with a friendly comment. For example: “I hope you have a nice weekend.”
FIRM: The goal of many BIFF responses is to end the conversation – to disengage from a potentially high-conflict situation. You want to let the other person know that this is really all you are going to say on the subject. In some cases, you will give two clear choices for future action. If you need a response, then it often helps to set a firm reply date. If you are going to take action if the other person does not do something, then you could say, for example: “If I don’t receive the information I need by such and such date, then I will have to do such and such. I really hope that won’t be necessary.” (Note that this is both firm and friendly.)
Source: coParenter.com. Excerpt from BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People: Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email, and Social Media Meltdowns. Second Edition by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. UNHOOKED BOOKS. HCIPress.com
Author: Bill Eddy LCSW, Esq – Bill is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the President of High Conflict Institute. He developed the "High Conflict Personality" theory (HCP Theory) and has become an international expert on managing disputes involving high conflict personalities and personality disorders.