© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Irate messages – especially email, texts and other electronic formats– are increasingly common. A relative blames you for everything. Your coworker is never satisfied. Your ex makes you miserable. Any of them are likely to send you emails telling you all about it. Part of this is that people have a tendency to vent, and most of it is harmless. When they routinely tell you why it’s all YOUR fault, however, things get trickier. Who doesn’t get upset when targeted by someone’s ridiculous email? Grumble away privately, if it helps, but use caution when you’re typing. With the advent of emails and text, most of us have rattled off a heated reply and pressed “send” without really thinking about much except setting that person straight. Then BOOM; your inbox is flooded with even more hateful mail. Now what? Do You Need to Respond At All?
Aggravating as it is, many argumentative messages do not need a response, as much as you might want to do it. In this context, it’s the old sticks ‘n stones adage – it’s just words and the message itself has no power, unless you give it power.
For example, your ex calls you a “rotten parent.” Say what?!? You could shoot back a reply detailing everything you do to be a fantastic parent and listing all the things your ex does wrong, or you could chill for a bit and decide it you even care what your ex thinks. The first way virtually guarantees you’ll get a barrage of emails back and you won’t be satisfied with anything else the ex says. The second way takes all the steam out of it. You already know you are a good parent; your family, friends and (possibly) the court all know it too, so what’s the big deal if your ex has a different opinion? Chances are good that you typically have differing opinions; so ask yourself if your reply will change his/her mind this time. Do you want to hear more of what the ex thinks? It’s up to you to decide how much power the original message has (or not) and whether to continue the exchange or let it die.
How to Reply
In many cases, you are better off not responding. However, some written communications can have power if copies are filed in a court or complaint process, or are sent to other people. In these cases, you can still choose to ignore it, or it may be important to respond to negative statements with simple, accurate statements of fact.
Let’s say your ex files a petition that states, “My spouse is an unfit parent .” Isn’t that the same as saying you’re a “rotten parent”? What’s the definition of a “rotten parent” anyway? Did you let the kids eat at McDonalds or, were you accused of having a wild, dope-smoking fest in the backyard? It’s doubtful a judge would give burgers and fries much consideration, so you (and your attorney!) could let it go. On the other hand, you may need to clarify drug accusations to protect yourself.
4 Simple Steps To Help You End the Discussion.
When you need to reply, we recommend a BIFF Response®: Be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. This blog is dedicated to the BIFF Response and related concepts, so you’ll learn more as you continue to read us. The nutshell version is:
Keep your response BRIEF. A few sentences are usually enough and reduces the chances of a long, angry and unproductive exchange. The more you (or counsel) write, the more material the other person has to criticize.
Make it INFORMATIVE. Don’t simply deny; “I did not!” won’t suffice. Neither will “He brought the drugs, for cryin’ out loud!” Counteracting false claims with your own accusations cloud the initial issue and add confusion. Stick to the facts in a straightforward, non-confrontational manner: “On May 27th I hosted approximately 10 friends and family and their children for a backyard barbeque from noon to 6:00 p.m. Some adults consumed responsible amounts of wine or beer and there were no illegal substances consumed to the best of my knowledge.”
Be FRIENDLY. This part admittedly ticks people off, because nobody feels like being friendly to someone who just attacked them. It does not mean you need to dish out compliments, but it does mean you should avoid lashing out in (understandable) anger that will just trigger the ex into a nastier response. Try: “I appreciate that my ex is looking out for the best interests of our children,” as opposed to “My ex is always imagining things and s/he knows I would never harm the kids!”
Be FIRM. The goal is to put the issue to rest without further discussion so we recommend making a statement with some finality, where appropriate, and avoiding open-ended comments. “I hope my ex agrees that I have always been a wonderful parent” invites your ex to respond with “I don’t agree, and here’s why….” In this example, you’ve already informed the court of the facts as you see them, so don’t leave it open for rebuttals from the ex or opposing counsel. You could simply state “I’m glad to have had the opportunity to address my spouse’s concern,” which indicates your intent that the discussion is over (and is friendly and brief).
The above example pertains to divorce and separation, but using BIFF Responses at work, school, home or anywhere else can save you time, money and emotional distress. Keep up with our blog as we dive deeper into the reasoning and details of becoming a BIFF master. In the meantime, visit our website for more information, articles, coaching and more to help you handle the difficult people in your life.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.