How to handle social media attacks like a champ

© 2015 By Rebecca Carroll-Bell

Just about everyone has a social media presence these days, leaving us vulnerable to intentional and unintentional arguments for the whole world to see.   George Takei, most known as Sulu on the original Star Trek series, encountered this dilemma recently. His public reply was longer than the BIFF Response we’d normally suggest, but he embodied the concept and dealt with the matter like pro.This article was originally posted by Rebecca Carroll-Bell on Australian Mediation Perspectives as “Resolving conflict on social media: George Takei shows us how.”  

Once again an internet meme has prompted strong criticism and complaint, this time on actor and activist George Takei’s social media accounts. How “Uncle George” chose to respond was both eloquent and insightful.

You may recall Aussie clothing label Black Milk’s social media meltdown earlier this year; Takei’s response shows us how social media conflict should be handled.

Meme? What meme?

Scott Jordan Harris writing in theNational Post this week, says this particular meme* is not new. “It is a photograph of a woman struggling out of her wheelchair to fetch a bottle from a liquor store shelf…I despise it for two key reasons. First, many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk short distances. Second, we are allowed to drink alcohol, and to shop for ourselves, just like any other adult.

The “miracle” meme has been around for a while—long enough to be infamous among those of us who use wheelchairs—but George Takei recently shared the photo several times with his colossal social media audience, and that brought it unprecedented exposure.”

Takei Said What?

Writing on his Facebook page a few days later, Takei said:

“I’ve just come back from an extended trip to England, and I came home to a large number of fan emails concerning a meme I shared more than a week ago. In that meme, a woman in a wheelchair was standing up to reach for a bottle of liquor in the store, and the caption said something about a miracle in the alcohol aisle. To this I added a quip about her being touched by the holy spirits…

After I’d posted the meme, I noted in the comments an inordinate amount of very uncivil behavior on the part of many fans, including both those who demanded I take it down and those who said I should leave it up. I also received a good deal of email IN CAPITAL LETTERS asking me if I would feel the same way if someone called me FAG or a JAP. Now, I took down the meme from my timeline shortly after it went up, but I admit I was decidedly irked by the tenor of some of those criticizing me. In that moment, I posted a follow up telling fans that perhaps they should “take it down—a notch” which, in retrospect, was not the most sensitive response.”

Just like the Black Milk Team, Takei initially went into defence mode, telling his fans to “take it down a notch”, in other words, devaluing and dismissing their concerns. Unlike Black Milk, Takei then reflected upon the feedback from his fans, and on his own reaction, and decided to take a different, more constructive approach – he apologised.**

He BIFF’ed that meme!

US author, attorney and mediator Bill Eddy developed the BIFF Response formula, which can be applied to any mode of communication. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm, and is the subject of Eddy’s book BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns

The aim of a BIFF response is to diffuse the conflict, end a ‘high-conflict discussion’ and perhaps even solve the underlying problem. A BIFF response® can also give you a great sense of relief.

Whether it was his intention or not, Takei’s open apology is a BIFF Response®.

Brief: At 511 words, Takei’s apology is long for a social media response, and is certainly longer than the 2 – 5 sentence Eddy suggests; however it needed to be that long to convey all that Takei wanted to say, and is no longer than necessary.

Informative: The post includes a lot of useful information on the subjects being discussed, delivered in plain English and without frills. Providing useful information shifts the discussion away from subjective opinions and focuses it on objective matters.

Friendly: Takei manages to blend informal and formal language in a way that makes the reader feel as though Takei is speaking to her/him directly. For example:

“Now, before all of you go and start defending my right to post what I want, I want first to thank the many fans who wrote in with the hopes of educating me on the question of “ableist” bias…

The fact that I was surprised by the response the wheelchair meme received indicates that I do indeed lack knowledge, and some sensitivity, over what is clearly a hot button issue, and that I and others can take this as an opportunity not to dig in, but rather to open up to the stories and experiences of those in the disabled community. I appreciate those who took the time to write in. I wish I’d had the chance to respond sooner, but until today I was not able to go through all the mail I’d received…

Very well then, carry on, friends. Carry on”

This is a rare skill, and may be one reason why his online following is so high. As Eddy notes in his book, adopting a friendly tone is often the hardest part of the BIFF response®, because truthfully, we often want to lash out and ‘take down’ the person to whom we are responding.

By adopting a friendly tone, you reduce the risk that the other party will take (further) offence, and avoid giving them (more) fuel for their anger/hurt/upset. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that the conflict will fizzle out without the need for further interaction.

Firm: “The goal of many BIFF responses® is to end the conversation – to disengage from a potentially high-conflict situation. You want to let the other person know that this is really all you are going to say on the subject.” (Eddy).

Takei achieves this, delivering firm messages to both those who criticised him for sharing the meme and those who ‘took his side’ against the critics:

“So to those who were hurt by my posts on this issue, I ask you please to accept this apology. To those who think I shouldn’t have to apologize, I want to remind you that I get to decide what I apologize for, so there’s no need to come to my defense.”

You can BIFF too

Using a BIFF response® requires the ability to step back from the situation, analyze what is really going on, and formulate a cool, calm response.

I recently helped a client to craft a BIFF response® to diffuse a conflict brewing between two commenters on her Google+ page. Once the post went up, the commenters took their dispute elsewhere, preserving the friendly, collegiate atmosphere she has so carefully nurtured on her own page.

Rebecca Carroll-Bell is a nationally accredited mediator in Australia.  

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