The Key to communicating with or responding to your high-conflict ex-partner
Communicating with your ex after separation can be fraught with difficulty and emotion, particularly where it is necessary to keep in regular contact regarding parenting arrangements.
Hostile comments can show up in text messages, emails, Facebook and face-to-face comments. Reacting to these comments in the same tone creates a pattern of aggressive behaviour that increases conflict rather than reduces it. It certainly does not discourage further hostile behaviour, nor does it engender goodwill for the future.
In families where there is a high level of conflict and animosity between parents, research shows that children are at a greater risk of developing emotional, social and behavioural problems, as well as difficulties with concentration and educational achievement. For further information the Family Courts have a publication on this issue.
Family lawyers often use examples of communications between parties as evidence of family violence, attitudes towards parenting, attitudes towards the other parent and evidence of which parent is better able to make long term decisions or facilitate and support a relationship between the child and the other parent.
These are all good reasons to avoid high conflict communication, but we understand you may not be the one initiating it! So, what can you do when your ex sends you a hostile communication?
The BIFF Response
The BIFF response (formulated by Billy Eddy/High Conflict Institute) is a technique that usually puts a stop to hostilities and provides a model for respectful communication moving forward.
The four parts of a BIFF Response are:
BRIEF: Keep it short, typically a paragraph, even when the comment you are responding to goes for paragraphs or pages. Don’t give too many words for your ex to react to. It is helpful to step back and not respond right away. You can also give your draft BIFF response to someone else to review before you send. They may be able to help you to cut down the response or identify potentially inflammatory remarks.
INFORMATIVE: Give straight information in neutral language, rather than emotions, opinions, defences or arguments. You don’t need to defend yourself when another person is being hostile. Stay focused on providing relevant information.
FRIENDLY: This is often the hardest part when you are being attacked but this avoids feeding the hostilities. Just a friendly greeting and closing, for example “Thanks for your email” or “I appreciate your concerns” and close with a friendly comment such as “I hope you have a nice weekend”.
FIRM: This means that the goal of your response should be to end the conversation without further hostilities. It does not mean that one needs to be harsh. Sometimes you will need a response from the other person. Ask a question that requires a Yes or No answer, and if necessary, provide two clear options and ask your ex to nominate one. If you need a response, it helps to set a firm but realistic reply date.
In general, it is best to respond promptly, after reviewing your draft response. High conflict people tend to believe that you agree with them unless you promptly disagree. Silence means consent to a defensive mindset.
There is a final part to the BIFF response, which a former Kennedy Partners client helpfully amended to the BIFF (AOI) response.
AOI stands for “And Occasionally Ignore”:
Sometimes it will be better not to respond at all, particularly where:
- There is clearly no real issue being discussed;
- The communications is simply the other persons opinion of you;
- Where it is clear that you will not change their view; or
- where you have already sufficiently responded.
Final tips and tricks:
- Avoid admonishments: Comments such as “You should know better than that” and “I’m surprised you would even consider such a plan” sound judgmental and are usually interpreted as a personal attack
- Avoid advice: Again, advice sounds neutral to the writer but is usually interpreted as a personal attack, so avoid advice unless it is specifically requested.
- Stay focused- try to stay on topic even if you ex gets distracted with other ideas.
- If they keep responding and try to keep the conflict going: it is ok to say something like “I’ve said all I’m going to say on this subject. Have a good weekend”.
- The BIFF response works best for written responses, but with practice it is also a powerful technique for responding to hostilities in person, for example at changeover.
By ensuring that you use the BIFF (AOI) response, you can confidently show your communications as evidence at court, if necessary. More importantly, in our view, it provides you with a strategy to model boundaries and expectations around respectful communication with your ex into the future (and don’t forget the children are observing and learning relationship skills too). In the rare situation where your ex’s behaviour does not improve their behaviour, use the BIFF (AOI) response for your peace of mind and the benefit to your children.
The best part is that the BIFF (AOI) response is applicable to high conflict situations is all areas of your life, whether in the workplace, community, professional, school and other personal relationships.
BIFF RESPONSE CHECKLIST
WRITE IT. CHECK IT. BIFF IT.
- Is it brief?
- Is it informative?
- Is it friendly?
- Is it firm?
There are many more tips for the BIFF response in “BIFF: Quick responses to high-conflict people, their personal attacks, hostile email and social media meltdowns”, by Bill Eddy.and in the additional resources below.
- “BIFF for Coparent Communication: your guide to difficult coparent texts, emails and social media posts”, Eddy, A. Burns and K.Chafin;
- New ways for Families Online: parenting without conflict, online course.