Excerpt: BIFF — Quick Responses to High Conflict People
Admonishments are really personal criticisms by a person in a superior role, such as a parent or a judge. High-conflict people interpret them as a personal attack, for the reasons explained above.
For example, you might feel like saying to a possible HCP: “You should know better than this.” “I’m surprised you would even consider such a plan.” “Look in the mirror, Joe.” And other comments that may sound innocent to the person giving the admonishment, but to most listeners (whether they are HCPs or not), they sound like a judgment of the whole person. If you use these expressions, you are doing what you don’t want others to do to you.
The message in an admonishment is that you are superior to the person you are writing to and have the right to criticize their behavior, even if you think you are doing it gently. It’s the assumption that you can judge the other person or her behavior that is the most offensive. The response will most likely be defensive, as the person tries to defend and justify their own actions. This is unnecessary and may trigger the person into their right brain defensiveness for quite a while. Just stay focused on the four parts of a BIFF response instead. It is designed to help you avoid slipping into admonishments.
This is actually the same problem as admonishments, but it often feels neutral. “I’m just trying to help with a few suggestions,” you might say. Perhaps you think it’s “constructive feedback.” But if the person didn’t ask you for feedback or suggestions, then you are treating the person disrespectfully – as though you are in a superior position to him – and he will probably attack you back if he’s an HCP. High-conflict people seem to spend a lot of their day in their right brain defensiveness – don’t reinforce this.
This one is the opposite of what you would expect. While apologies are helpful with many people in many situations, they often backfire with HCPs. Instead of thanking you and that being the end of it, HCPs usually interpret an apology in an all-or-nothing manner. They think you said it was “all my fault.” This reinforces their belief that it really is all your fault and they will remind you of this the next time there is a conflict (and there usually is with HCPs).
It took me a while to figure this out. One day I was counseling a couple who were in a long-term relationship. The husband seemed like a bully and the wife seemed intimidated. Suddenly, the bully pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Let me remind you of this.” He went on to read:
“I’m sorry for all of the things I’ve said and done to disappoint you. I have disappointed myself too. I’m not as strong of a person as I thought I was, and I was wrong to criticize you and attack you for little things. I want to apologize and I hope you will accept my apology. I will try to be a better person in the future.”
Then he said: “Do you remember writing this?” and he held up the well-worn paper in front of her. He had no clue that he was being a bully. He truly believed it was all her fault. After all, the paper said she agreed with him! I’m sure she wrote it in an effort to get him to calm down one day years ago. But he was too defensive to understand this and they eventually split up. He was a high-conflict person.
This is the problem with apologies to HCPs. It reinforces their all-or-nothing belief systems. I know it can be hard to resist using an apology to calm down a high-conflict person, but it often comes back to haunt you – even years later. (Of course, you can say “I’m sorry I’m late” or “I’m sorry to see you in this difficult situation.” Those are social niceties, rather than taking responsibility for causing a problem.) Just be careful you aren’t slipping an apology into your BIFFs.
In short, watch out for the “3 A’s” described above whenever you write a BIFF. If possible, have someone else check it for you as well.
About Bill Eddy William A. (“Bill”) Eddy, L.C.S.W., J.D. is a family law attorney, therapist and mediator, with over thirty years’ experience working with children and families. He is the Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is also the President of the High Conflict Institute, which provides speakers, trainers and consultants on the subject of managing high-conflict people in legal disputes, workplace disputes, healthcare and education. He has taught Negotiation and Mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and he teaches Psychology of Conflict at the Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law. He is the author of several books, including:
For more information about Bill Eddy, please visit: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.