Hostile comments can show up anywhere, including in emails, letters, on Facebook, comments to internet articles, and in-person. This can occur under any circumstances including but not limited to personal relationships, at work, with co-workers, with neighbors, with family members, with customer service personnel or even strangers. They often occur between exes in high conflict divorce.
How should you respond to hostile communication? Ignore them, react in an equally hostile manner or is there a completely different option for responding? What if there is a way to respond that can calm the angry person who sent the message, give you more respect, end the angry conversation, and doesn’t increase the conflict?
There is! The response is a B.I.F.F. response. B.I.F.F. stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. A B.I.F.F. Response is a way to respond that usually puts a stop to the hostilities while leaving you feeling calm and good about yourself.
Brief – Keep it brief. Keep it short, typically a paragraph at most. This is even when the comment you’re responding to goes on and on for many paragraphs or pages. This leaves much less for the other person to react to and is often sufficient to get your main point across. Long explanations, defensiveness and arguments perpetuate more angry responses.
Informative – Focus on straight information. Stick to the point. Give straight information, rather than emotions, opinions, defenses or arguments. You don’t need to defend yourself when another person is being hostile. It’s not about you. It’s about their inability to manage their emotions and responses. Just stay focused on providing relevant information.
Friendly – Include a friendly greeting; have empathy for their concerns; close with a positive statement. This may seem hard to do when you’re being attacked in writing or verbally. But this avoids feeding the hostilities and may even calm an upset person. Just a friendly greeting and closing; nothing too involved. This helps keep the hostilities from escalating. It also shows that you have good self-restraint.
Firm – This means that you end the conversation rather than feeding the hostilities. It doesn’t mean harsh. Just avoid anything that opens the door to receiving more hostile comments in return. Say something that calmly ends the conversation. Sometimes, you will need a response from the other person, so just ask a question seeking a Yes or No answer by such-and-such time and/or date. Then end on a friendly note. End the conversation; close the door to further argument; or give 2 choices and a deadline for the requested response.
Putting B.I.F.F. into action:
Rule #1 is always to ask – “Do I need to reply to this at all?”
Pause. Take a deep breath. Then read the email/ text with a critical eye: Is there anything that really requires a reply? (A deadline, an appointment, a parent teacher conference, a needed decision). Look for valid matters and ignore the jabs. A decision on an appointment time is valid. An accusation that you never communicate is invalid. Asking what time to pick up a child is valid. Saying everybody is mad at you/blaming you is not valid. Additionally, a decision needed for a concrete issue is only valid if it’s new. Further demands to discuss the same matter are not valid and need no reply, or a shorter version – one time – of what you said last time. Don’t take the bait when the next re-worded email with the same demand comes along. And remember you should not reply to or comment on jabs at you, or use them as an excuse to make jabs yourself at the other person. Do not become hostile yourself in any way; stay above that.
Rule #2 Leave out the 3 A’s – These are important things to avoid in your response:
Advice. Are you telling the other person what to do, how to behave, or how to feel? If so, you can expect a defensive reaction and more email/texts. Avoid unsolicited advice such as, “You just need to do X.” Make a proposal instead.
Admonishments. Telling a defensive or upset person what they do wrong and how to fix it will just make them more defensive and earn you another accusatory reply. Things like “You’re overreacting” or “You should be ashamed” are not going to help them hear you and will escalate hostility.
Apologies. Most of us apologize sometimes, but it easily backfires with high conflict people (HCP). “Sorry I was late” is OK as a social nicety. “I’m sorry my email upset you” is accepting responsibility for the other person’s emotions. It’s almost guaranteed to be taken as an admission of guilt, which an HCP will use against you to place blame and defend their actions.
Let’s look at a few examples and determine whether or not a response is necessary and what a B.I.F.F. response might look like.
#1 A High Conflict Divorce
“Jane, I can’t believe you are so stupid as to think that I’m going to let you take the children to your boss’ 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 witnessing you making a total fool of yourself–including flirting with everyone from the CEO down to the delivery guy! 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 responds with:
“Thank you for responding to my request to take the children to my office party.Just to clarify, the party will be from 3-5 P.M. on Friday at the office and there will be approximately 30 people there–including several other parents bringing school-age children. There will be no alcohol, as it is a family-oriented firm and there will be family-oriented activities. I think it will be a good experience for them to see me at my workplace. With this information I hope you will reconsider. Please let me know by Thursday at 5 P.M. if you change your mind. Thanks!”
Was Jane’s response a B.I.F.F. response?
Was the response Brief? Yes, it was a short paragraph
Was the response Informative? Yes, lines 2 & 3 gave important information
Was the response Friendly? Yes, the first line and the last line were friendly
Was the response Firm? Yes, the last line gave a deadline for a response
What was left out of the response? Jane’s response did not react to the name calling or accusations made about her character. She did not get defensive or correct the accusatory remarks.
#2 Text from an Ex-Spouse
“I got a new lawyer today. Boy, are you in trouble. All the BS you say about me is going to get you hammered in court. You’ll NEVER get any custody because you’re such a sack of s**t and you’re going to have to give me a ton of money. Lots more than that crappy amount you pay now. I hate you and now you’ll be sorry you filed for divorce.”
Nothing. No response is necessary. Sometimes the hardest part of a BIFF Response is not doing it at all. Choose to ignore this and you’ll avoid spending the next few hours battling it out.
#3 A Co-Parenting Example
Text from Mom:
“Thanks for nothing you pile of crap. Those clothes you bought for his birthday are junk. I’ll be asking the judge for more money so I can get him something decent to wear when he does things like go to his doctor appointment on Thursday. Drop dead.”
“Thanks for letting me know about his doctor appointment. I’ll check in after to hear what the doctor said.”
Is a response necessary?
Was the response Brief?
Was the response Informative?
Was the response Friendly?
Was the response Firm?
The idea is to calm the conflict rather than escalate it, restraining your urge to attack the other person back. You can stop the hostile conversation without getting down in the mud yourself. Just keep it brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
You can learn more about B.I.F.F. and high conflict resolution at the
High Conflict Institute https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/
You can purchase Bill Eddy’s book on B.I.F.F. responses at: