Responding to High-Conflict People During Disputes


On April 15, 2015, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan entitled “Mind Your Email Manners.”  In this article, Ms. Tan recommended more formality in emails than many of us use, as well as brevity in what we say. A workshop I attended later that week on Approaches for High Conflict Disputes, offered by Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute, reinforced that message for me. Part of Mr. Eddy’s presentation dealt with how to send BIFF responses—Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm responses—to persons who are difficult to deal with.

I think I generally follow these principles in my written communications. As an attorney, I learned early to be direct and accurate in my communications. In dealing with corporate leaders in a variety of contexts, I learned to be brief and to ask directly for what I needed from them. In all communications I strove to be courteous and respectful.

But as I lauded myself on my strong communications skills, I remembered the many first drafts I wrote to opposing counsel, in which I lambasted them for their stupidity in opposing my client’s position. I used to type these drafts so furiously my fingers hurt when I was finished. My later drafts usually sounded more reasonable, but I cannot say that I didn’t leave some caustic phrases in the final versions of these letters that got mailed.

I can still dash off an angry letter, which I have to edit before sending. Clearly, BIFF responses are not my default style, no matter how much I tell myself otherwise.

gmail iconIn today’s world, with communications flying back and forth in seconds, it is even more important that we step back before sending our initial drafts of correspondence, particularly when we are dealing with difficult people—whom we might define as anyone with whom we have a conflict. I have found that it is useful to draft my email responses in a Word document, and only past the final version into the email program before I push the “send” button. Another approach is to delete all the recipients’ names from the reply until I am satisfied with the message I want to send.

Although the workshop I attended was focused on “high conflict” individuals—who are often people with personality disorders or other psychological problems—it occurred to me during the workshop that all of us can at times become “high conflict.” All of us have times when we are emotionally involved in a problem and our flight/fight/freeze instincts take over our brains. Some people live in this state more than others, but we all go there at times.

So it is always important to keep all of our communications as rationally based as possible. We should be Brief, Information, Friendly and Firm in our letters and emails, regardless of the circumstances, to minimize the likelihood that we will escalate the situation rather than defuse it.

9781936268726_frontcover__50452.1419805581.500.659Mr. Eddy also recommends that we not Admonish, Advise, or Apologize in our responses to difficult people. While there might be times when apologies or advice are appropriate in normal business communications, his theories are worth considering when we are in the middle of a dispute, as I was in my communications with opposing counsel I mentioned.

The bottom line is a question that Mr. Eddy recommends we ask about our initial drafts—how is the receiving party likely to react? That question applies to any situation. We should reflect on what impact our communications are having while we still have a chance to change them. Seek advice from a good coach or colleague if you have doubts about what to say or how to say it.

For more on Bill Eddy’s BIFF responses techniques, see the High Conflict Institute website, which offers many free resources for mediators and other professionals engaged in dispute resolution. He has a book entitled BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, which also provides more information.

When have you encountered a problem because of a communication you sent?

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1 Comment

Filed under Human Resources, Management, Mediation

One response to “Responding to High-Conflict People During Disputes

  1. Pingback: Managing Yourself as a Mediator | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

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