BIFF: Responding to Emotion and Complexity
All of us get information we shouldn’t have or don’t want. Friends tell us things that are very personal. Someone hits “reply all.” Information is shared in good faith, but wasn’t really meant for us. And the message may contain highly emotional language.
Getting this information may help us understand a situation or event, but it may also change the way we understand our responsibility with these new circumstances. Should we act on the information? Wait and let the parties work it out? Not say anything and hope the responsible people act responsibly? Address the emotion if not the information? It’s complicated, as they say.
If you are torn about what to do in a situation like this, then maybe starting with a few questions can ease into the decision.
1. What is your real responsibility? Do you have to respond, and does the response have to address the new information? Can the emotion be acknowledged separately from the content?
The answer may depend on the answers to other questions such as how many people will be negatively impacted by not acting, the degree of negative impact, or the consequences of not acting. Not many of us face situations involving legal issues – they can actually be pretty clear – but moral and ethical issues can be challenging, and we face those often enough to figure this out. If the source of the information is seeking solace and not action, then a sympathetic response may be all that is necessary.
2. If you respond, what are you responding to, the understanding you have of the situation with or without this new information?
This seems to be the tricky part. How do you respond to something you shouldn’t know and that will create a real fuss if it becomes evident that you do know? My approach is not to address the new information directly because there may be other information or recent action that makes your understanding obsolete or because commenting may identify the source. Instead, try asking a clarifying question on what you already know that prods an answer including an accurate update.
3. How can the response be framed?
Here’s where a concept (and a book) called “BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People” by Bill Eddy is really helpful. Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute, an organization that addresses issues of working with high-conflict personalities and sensitive issues. As an attorney and psychologist, he understands the personality dysfunctions that drive high-conflict behavior and offers practical advice for managing them.
BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm, a very clear method for responding to high-conflict or challenging communications or behavior. Eddy suggests using BIFF in complex situations or where a response to a highly emotional, wide-ranging attack is necessary.
First, be Brief and to the point, focusing on the key issue, not the range of issues. Just because something is mentioned doesn’t mean you are required to comment on it. Know what to overlook, including annoying or inappropriate language.
Including Information rather then commenting on “tone” or “appropriateness” and neutralizing language (taking out the pronouns and using the passive voice) reduces the personal nature of the exchange and sticks to the issue. Personality differences or highly emotional statements should not distract from the central issue, especially if they are intended to shift focus from the issue to the person.
A Friendly response will help to reduce the tension, so these responses should avoid being angry or insulting. Every communication includes both information and relationship messages. I have suggested that the relationship message be put before and after the information, like bookends, so that the message doesn’t sound as if it were generated by some computer from a collection of standard paragraphs. The relationship message doesn’t have to be an accounting of your friendship over the years or the business relationship you now have. Simply using the person’s name in a salutation recognizes that person as an individual and conveys respect. Closing with something like, “thanks very much” and using less formal language patterns also contributes to a friendly feel without indicating that your are BFFs or even particularly close colleagues.
Use language that is Firm without being negative or antagonistic. Not easy, I know. A firm statement ends the current exchange and can be as simple as, “Let’s be in touch on Monday” to convey that the exchange is over for the weekend. Or maybe it has to be more specific like, “Unfortunately, the additional information is not available at this time,” (no pronouns included), but a statement like that should be followed when possible by a stronger relationship message or even a suggestion for next steps that are helpful alternatives to continued contact with you. This element is harder to achieve, but very valuable if done well.
BIFF is not limited to just an immediate response to a single communication, but can be used as a pattern over the course of several exchanges. This approach limits the emotional fallout and keeps the conversation on target.
And yes, it may not always work, but nothing ever does. Use it until other steps are necessary. I found this approach to be extremely helpful. I communicated what I needed to by asking a clarifying question; I got a reasonable response and prodded action that might have been delayed; negative impact was reduced; and no one got mad. It took a week to figure out the best language, so don’t give up if your first attempt is not perfect.