From our episode “BIFF at Work – The email method and the book” with Bill Eddy
“Why can’t we just act like adults?
I always think that adults aren’t really great at conflict; we’re not all that mature in dealing with our conflict. There would not be war, politicians, therapists, or lawyers if we were really great at acting like adults. So I always find that funny. Where there’s people, there’s drama.
10% of people may be high conflict who are really responsible for probably 90% of the conflict that really gets people’s attention, so it’s not everybody, but we all need to pay attention and manage ourselves well.
Characteristics and behavior of a high conflict person
- They’re preoccupied with blaming
- They take zero responsibility
- They have unmanaged emotions
- They have extreme behaviors
We do connect this to personality disorders that have been studied, and there are some statistics about them. 10.5% of adults have a personality disorder. Not all of them are high conflict because they don’t all have this preoccupation with blaming others. Narcissistic borderline, anti-social, and histrionic traits are often present in high conflict disputes and high conflict behavior. Whatever pattern of behavior they have, they’re stuck in it. It’s a narrow pattern. They keep repeating it.
Some people are more extreme. Some people may have traits like narcissism, but they don’t all have narcissistic personality disorder. 6% of the population does, according to the DSM-5-TR statistics, so if they’re less severe, then they’re more likely to change. Half the people make some change, half the people don’t, and they end up moving out of the organization or out of the position they’re in often.
Are bullying and high conflict individuals the same?
We don’t know the answer. Because my way or the highway is certainly something. I see a lot in my work, but they’re lacking that kind of extreme behavior most of the time. I do sometimes come across those extreme people where it’s like, “I can’t help you, I can’t coach you for change” versus others who are mortified that people view them with such high conflict and so abrasive.
Part of the reason they don’t change is because they don’t see what other people see. They lack this self-awareness of how they affect other people. So, when other people are upset with them, they go, “What’s wrong with you?” instead of going, “Oh, I’ll have to think about that,” and this is a key thing for healthy people. People without a personality disorder or high conflict personality are to ask two questions:
“What’s my part in this problem?”
”What can I do differently?”
High conflict people don’t ask themselves these two questions, and bullies don’t ask themselves either. Bullies in many ways, because there’s a lot of overlap with bullies, do have some extreme behavior and they’re blamers, and that doesn’t work.
It is how you address a communication issue with someone who’s not self-aware and to respond, especially in writing. You have time to think this through.
Respond in a way that’s brief, Informative, friendly, and firm.
- Brief– It is usually no more than a paragraph. If they’ve written two or three letters telling you how horrible you are as a person, that’s what we call “blame speak,” and that’s about them, not about you. It’s their lack of restraint.
- Informative– Just focus on straight information. Not on defenses, arguments, emotions, and opinions.
- Friendly– Practice sounding nice, friendly, and understanding.
- Firm– You want to end the hostile conversation. So you don’t put any hooks out there. Give them accurate information and that would be a BIFF response.
You’re pouring cold water on the flames, and you feel good because you didn’t get down in the mud.
Questions to ask, respond, and answer before you send out communication
First of all, if you can show it to somebody else and have them help you think about it, and if you’re coaching somebody, ask them these questions. But if you don’t have anybody else around, just ask yourself.
- Is it brief?
- Is it informative?
- Is it friendly?
- Is it firm?
- Does it have any advice?
- Does it have any admonishments?
- Do I need to apologize?
- How do you think the other person will respond to this?
- Is there anything that you would take out or change?
- Do you want to get someone else’s thoughts about it?
So, if you’re coaching somebody, the first nine questions, you direct to the writer of the BIFF, and don’t give your opinion until question 10.
If you’re handling a short-tempered person in a conversation, use the EAR statements. Show empathy, attention, or respect. Any of these three tends to calm down an angry, hostile person in a conversation. Think of BIFF in writing, think of EAR statements if you’re in a conversation.
Sentences that begin with, “I can understand, I can see how upsetting this is to you, or I can hear that you’re so disappointed in.” That shows that you’re treating them as an equal and you’re connecting with what they’re experiencing, but you’re not opening it up. When you’ve got hostile people, you don’t want to say, “Tell me everything I did that made you angry” because they’ll have to think of stuff and they’re going to keep in the negative. You don’t want to reinforce that.
You might say, “Tell me more. I want to understand your point of view. ” Show them that you are paying attention to them.
Say something like, “I respect the work you did last week,” “I really respect how well you did that,” or “I respect your commitment to solving this problem.” It has to be honest, to be true, and you’re trying to focus on the positive, not dig in for the negative, just acknowledge them with empathy, attention, or respect.
With the great resignation, it really is about toxic environments. People feel disrespected or they’ve just decided to finally take action. So just focus on being more empathetic.
It’s a much bigger world now. We’re very interconnected with close to nine billion people. The most aggressive people dominate on social media, on cable news, and in all of this, we’re seeing the bullies, the high-conflict people, kind of rise in a new culture.
We can’t have everybody saying anything. There really does need to be some standards, some empathy, some respect for each other. We have to rebuild that from the ground up because of these other influences that are coming at us so fast and we haven’t adapted.
Lean on your policies and have your regular conversations with them about what’s going on with their behavior and what you need from them to be different. We’re afraid of high-conflict people. It can be difficult to hold them accountable, but you’ve got to do it. The tools are simple.
Emotions are contagious. If you can stay calm and stay positive, it’s hard for the people around you to stay negative. They get kind of swept up with the positivity, so everyone can do this. One person can turn things around into the positive.