I like BIFF- great concept. What if you’re talking with someone who has already pre-decided that whatever response you give, it will be received as an attack? For example, brevity = passive-aggression and detailed/normal = active-aggression. How do you crack that egg?
Sounds like you are talking about someone who shows traits of a personality disorder, so let’s start with some background on that.
Who Are High-Conflict People?
There are several main types, and arguably Borderline and Narcissistic are the most common. Borderline is generally characterized by love-you-hate-you actions, being emotionally extreme and having a very defensive nature. Narcissism is commonly described as being aloof, uncaring or acting “special” and manipulative. Either one can be a master of deflection. There is a wide spectrum of traits among individuals, so no two people are exactly the same. We call them High Conflict People (HCP) which is just a catch-all term for people who are habitually difficult whether or not there is a diagnosed disorder. According to Bill Eddy, President of High Conflict Institute and inventor of the BIFF Response,® all HCPs have a pattern of behavior and when you know what to expect, you can then learn how to deal with them.
- All-or-nothing thinking – HCPs are generally not open to your logic, point of view or ideas. Anything you say can be taken as an insult or a personal attack, such as you described. They tend to go for one “solution” and that solution typically has to do with someone else changing a behavior- not themselves. Everything is black or white with little, if any, room for alternative solutions, especially if you suggest one.
- Unmanaged emotions: HCPs can be very emotional and intense and their reactions to people frequently seem over the top and completely out of proportion to whatever was said. Unthinking outbursts are common and they can either regret it later or try to tell you why it was a perfectly natural response. Some don’t suffer these outbursts but instead will find way to more quietly manipulate you or the situation to get what they want.
- Extreme behavior – HCPs can be very extreme; stalking, gossiping, hitting, yelling, lying, public outbursts, domineering behavior, etc. are common. Or, going the other direction, they may ignore you entirely and give you the silent treatment because you said the sky is blue. Much of this is thought to be related to the lack of emotional control, above, and strangely enough it’s their way of trying to regain control (usually over you!)
- Blaming – Perhaps the one universal trait in HCPs is their drive to blame others for just about everything. Most HCPs lack an ability to self-reflect, take responsibility for or comprehend their own contributions to conflicts, but they very easily attach behavior to you that they do themselves (aka: projection). Their targets can be strangers but the blame can be particularly intense for loved ones and people with authority over them. They will not only accuse you of doing something wrong, they’ll blame you for the way they react to that perceived wrong.
Why Does She Act Like That? (or He)
There are myriad answers to that question depending on what you read. It’s generally thought to stem from early bad experiences and probably has biological components as well. Whatever the cause, it’s important to remember that by-and-large most HCPs don’t do all these things intentionally. Oh, it can feel very intentional especially in the case of a person with NPD or Anti-Social disorder who goes out of their way to manipulate you or gather others against you. The thing is, it generally comes from some deeply buried fear(s) that trigger the behaviors without them really being aware of what they are doing, feeling or why. For them, it’s an instinctual reaction they need to take in an effort to “save” themselves from what feels like a threatening situation and it’s extremely hard for them to stop. Most have had a lifetime of experience doing these behaviors, they are expert at it, and it comes to them in a nanosecond. It’s much like swatting a bee that landed on your arm – you don’t stop to think about it being a threat, or why it’s a threat, or potential consequences of swatting versus not swatting – you just do it.
Why am I telling you this? Two reasons – One is that if you can dredge up some compassion for someone who has to live his/her life in constant fear without even being aware of it, it will make it easier for you to heave a heavy sigh and interact with them in a way that may not be your first choice, but will give you more success. Two is that it comes down to the crux of the reader’s original question of “how do you crack that egg?”
Cracking the Egg Is Easy, But Serving It Up Is Another Story
Most of us try several approaches with varying levels of success or failure. You can be Hard Boiled by putting your foot down and making ultimatums and demands. The problem is that even if your message is received, it’s nearly impossible for the HCP to adhere to demands, and frankly, it doesn’t work very well with non-HCPs either. You can try Coddled Eggs, but that rarely sits well with the Coddler. Resentment builds because you’re the only one actually trying to make a difference and it has little, if any, effect on the behavior you dislike. Scrambled Eggs – we’ve all been there, try this, try that, mix it all up and see how you like it. You can toss out the cookware altogether and end the relationship. It’s a viable option and often it’s the only way to get out of the fire. It’s not something to be taken lightly, however, and when we’re not ready or are unable to sever ties we get down to the nitty gritty of your question.
Inherent in the phrase “cracking the egg” is the implication is that there is a problem to be solved. It’s a problem with the other person, in this case, and we want that problem fixed. OK, so that is a perfectly normal desire but we all tend to look for a solution that involves the HCP somehow, someday changing the way they act. In this sense, the solution lies in looking at our expectations of the other person. Our natural inclination is to try and talk sense to them in an effort to get them to stop being the way they are. However, as noted above, change is very difficult for people with traits of a personality disorder to pull off. You can read more about why it’s so hard for an HCP to change, but for now let’s stick with what you already knew before you started reading this: Anything you say can be perceived as a personal attack. They’ll shut down, stop listening, lash out and/or will deflect their own fears and behavior back onto you and blame you for it. The best way around that, if you can’t sever the relationship altogether, is to work on letting go of the notion that there is something you can do or say to get someone else to permanently change and instead learn new tools to cope with the issues as they come up.
Try an Over-Easy Approach
We teach several key methods for working with difficult people and they all have to do with self-education about the dynamics of HCP behavior and working on our own behaviors, since we cannot fix anyone else. The BIFF Response® is one method you can use: keeping your communications (especially in writing) Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. The EAR Method is particularly good in verbal confrontations and asks you to interact with the HCP with Empathy, Attention and Respect. Having a working knowledge of the HCP Cycle of Blame will help you avoid common triggers that make a conversation head south (See blogs on the theories of BAD and MAD). All of these create a less threatening emotional atmosphere for the HCP and they are much less stressful on you too, so you could call them the Over Easy approach. The goal is to help alleviate the person’s fear-based reactions enough so the conversation can be shorter and/or more productive which will have a positive influence on your interactions. Once you indirectly coax them into a more receptive frame of mind, you can help the other person stay less emotional and in a problem-solving mode with the Proposal based methods and an understanding of how the HCP brain reacts to you.
Key to any of these techniques actually working, though, is first adjusting our own expectations to understand that the methods don’t change the long-standing and deeply engrained patterns in the other person. You have to take each exchange on a case-by-case basis. To be the most successful, you will need to anticipate that the next blow-up will occur but with practice and more knowledge under your belt, you know you’ll be ready to handle it confidently and with greater success. I wish you luck!
- Don’t Ask “Why?” Ask “What’s Your Proposal?”
- Making Proposals
- Talking To The Right Brain In A Conflict
- Can Relationships with People who have Borderline Personalities be Saved?
Trissan Dicomes is the BIFF Response Coordinator for High Conflict Institute. She runs the www.BIFFResponse.com website and social media for High Conflict Institute. She provides BIFF Response coaching and a regular BIFF Response blog. She has over 20 years’ experience as a Paralegal in civil litigation, probate and family law mediation. She worked for 8 years at the National Conflict Resolution Center and acquired hands-on experience helping clients learn to write and speak with the BIFF Response method and handle high-conflict disputes in mediation. Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org – (916) 258-2433.
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