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BIFF Response® at Work: Responding to Hostile Mail

BIFF Response® at Work: Responding to Hostile Mail   ©2023 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.   Hostile mail – especially email, texts and other electronic communications – has become much more common over the past decade. Most of this mail is just “venting,” and has little real significance. However, when people are involved in a formal conflict (a workplace grievance, a divorce, a homeowners’ association complaint, etc.) there may be more frequent hostile mail. There may be more people involved and it may be shown to others or in court. Therefore, how you respond to hostile mail may impact your relationships or the outcome of a case. Do you need to respond? Much of hostile mail or email does not need a response. Email from irritating co-workers, (ex-) spouses, angry neighbors or even attorneys do not usually have legal significance. The email itself has no power, unless you give it power. Often, it is emotional venting aimed at relieving the writer’s anxiety. If you respond with similar emotions and hostility, you will simply escalate things without satisfaction, and just get a new piece of hostile mail back. In most cases, you are better off not responding. However, some letters and emails develop power when copies are filed in a court or complaint process – or simply get sent to other people. In these cases, it may be important to respond to inaccurate statements with accurate statements of fact. If you need to respond, I recommend a BIFF Response (SM) : Be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. BRIEF Keep your response brief. This will reduce the chances of a prolonged and angry back and forth. The more you write, the more material the other person has to criticize. Keeping it brief signals that you don’t wish to get into a dialogue. Just make your response and end your letter. Don’t take their statements personally and don’t respond with a personal attack. Avoid focusing on comments about the person’s character, such as saying he or she is rude, insensitive or stupid. It just escalates the conflict and keeps it going. You don’t have to defend yourself to someone you disagree with. If your friends still like you, you don’t have to prove anything to those who don’t. INFORMATIVE The main reason to respond to hostile mail is to correct inaccurate statements that might be seen by others. “Just the facts” is a good idea. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make, not on the inaccurate statements the other person made. For example: “Just to clear things up, I was out of town on February 12th, so I would not have been the person who was making loud noises that day.” Avoid negative comments. Avoid sarcasm. Avoid threats. Avoid personal remarks about the other’s intelligence, ethics or moral behavior. If the other person has a “high conflict personality,” you will have no success in reducing the conflict with personal attacks. While most people can ignore personal attacks or might think harder about what you are saying, high conflict people feel they have no choice but to respond in anger – and keep the conflict going. Personal attacks rarely lead to insight or positive change. FRIENDLY While you may be tempted to write in anger, you are more likely to achieve your goals by writing in a friendly manner. A friendly response will increase your chances of getting a friendly – or neutral – response in return. If your goal is to end the conflict, then add a friendly greeting and friendly closing. Don’t give the other person a reason to get defensive and keep responding. Make it sound as relaxed and non-antagonistic as possible. Brief comments that show your empathy and respect will generally calm the other person down, even if only for a short time. FIRM In a non-threatening way, tell the other person your information or concerns about an issue. (For example: “That’s all I’m going to say on this issue.”) Be careful not to make comments that invite more discussion, such as: “I hope you will agree with me …”. This invites the other person to tell you “I don’t agree.” Just give your friendly closing and then stop. However, if you need a decision from the other person, then end with two choices, such as: “Please let me know by Friday at 5pm if I should pick up those documents or you will send them to me.” By limiting it to two choices, you are less likely to trigger a new argument. By giving a response date and time, you avoid having to keep contacting the person. If he or she does not respond by then, you can choose whether to ask again or take other action. Firm doesn’t mean harsh. Just sound confident and end the back-and-forth nature of hostile communications. A confident-sounding person is less likely to be challenged with further emails. If you get further emails, you can ignore them, if you have already sufficiently addressed the inaccurate information. If you need to respond again, keep it even briefer and do not emotionally engage. In fact, it often helps to just repeat the key information using the same words. Example Roberta was terminated after a long progressive discipline process, with repeated failure to comply with the company rules. There had been several incidents in which she was believed to have harassed other employees, although none of the incidents ever resulted in legal claims (fortunately). After being counseled by the Human Resources department several times without any change in her behavior, she was terminated. Since she was not a member of a union and there was no contract for her position, she was let go “at will” of the company, without justification necessary (although the company had plenty of it). Jerry is the Human Resource manager who dealt with her in the termination process. Jerry has remained in contact with Roberta by email, in order to be helpful to her and to help keep her

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EAR Statements for the Holidays

©2021 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. The past two years have been stressful throughout the world, with endless Covid, endless crazy weather, and endless political tensions. Now that it’s the holidays, you would think that we could relax and enjoy each other’s company. But with Omicron, new vaccine and mask mandates, and everything else, tensions continue to run high. Yet we still want to gather together and do it peacefully. What could help us do this? I, of course, think that practicing EAR Statements will benefit everyone and help create a general atmosphere of peacefulness. (After all, our logo tag line is “the missing peace.”) EAR Statements communicate Empathy, Attention, and Respect in less than a minute. About 90% of the time, an EAR Statement™ will calm any upset person, whether they’re angry, sad, or just frustrated. You can say a sentence that only includes Empathy (“I feel that way too sometimes”), or just Attention (“I want to understand, tell me more”), or simply Respect (“I respect your time with our daughter”) or all three.    Masks For example, if you want people to wear a mask inside your house during a large gathering, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not, some people might object. You might give them an EAR Statement like the following (and have a sign near your front door: “Masks required”): Friend (angry): “This rule is really stupid. You can do whatever you want at this house gathering. It’s your house!” You (in a friendly tone of voice): “I can understand that this is frustrating: it’s harder to breathe, your glasses get fogged up, and we all look silly too (Empathy). I feel the same frustrations and respect your concern (Respect). But we are very fearful of another Covid spike and are willing to wear masks for now—and we ask that you do too. We’re glad you’re here and we want to catch up with you (Attention).” Or suppose you’re on the other side of this issue and opposed to masks. You could use similar EAR language for expressing your point of view and the rules in your house. You (in a friendly tone of voice): “I can understand your frustration with my opposition to masks (Empathy), and I respect your personal right to wear one (Respect). I’m glad to see you and want to hear what you’ve been up to (Attention). But I have a policy against wearing masks in my home and you’ll need to decide what you’ll want to do for today.”  While these examples show connecting in all three ways (Empathy, Attention, and Respect), even just one way might be sufficient. After all, a friendly tone of voice is often the most important part of an EAR Statement. Meat Vegetarian vs. meat is another common family and friend holiday topic ripe for conflict. For example: Vegetarian: “I can’t believe that your house smells so strongly of meat dishes. You know I’m not just thinking of myself here. It’s unhealthy for you too, and the planet can’t support meat eating anymore. You (in a friendly tone of voice): “I respect your concern about meat eating (Respect). I’ve cut down on my own red meat eating, although I still eat some and most of my guests do too. But don’t worry, we have a couple great vegetarian dishes, including my favorite eggplant dish. I want you to feel comfortable and satisfied with your meal today (Empathy). Meat eater: “I see you don’t have any meat dishes here today! Are you trying to make me feel uncomfortable?” You (in a friendly tone of voice): “I can relate to your concern about this (Empathy). I respect your opinion and still eat meat too (Respect). But I thought that there are so many vegetarians coming today that I would put out an all-vegetarian menu that meat-lovers can enjoy too. There’s meat-like sauces and veggie burgers too. Let me know what you think after you’ve tried everything. I’m interested in your opinion so I can decide whether to do this again (Attention). Thanks.” Again, these statements include two or three of our ways of connecting with EAR Statements, but even just one may help. It seems that the key is to be friendly and acknowledge the other person’s concerns, even if you don’t agree with them. Create a sense of “us against the problem,” not “me against you.” More There are many more areas of potential conflict when family and friends gather together, especially in large groups. Politics is especially heated nowadays, but religion and other topics can be areas of controversy too. The reality is that no one is going to change anyone else’s mind in an argument. Nowadays, everyone’s mind is already made up and we all feel very strongly about our conclusions. One approach to this reality at gatherings of family and friends is to post a sign which says something like this: This is a Respectful Gathering Tis the season to be jolly—and respectful! Let’s all have a good time and steer clear of hot topics that can cause discomfort to others, such as politics, religion, food preferences, people’s chosen lifestyles, and so forth. We’ve all been under a lot of stress the past two years, so a few days of peace and celebration are in order. If someone starts to discuss things that make you uncomfortable, just point to this sign. Thanks for making this a pleasant time for all! Conclusion This is a short example of how EAR Statements can reduce conflicts and help people have a good time over the holidays. Empathy can be expressed with sentences like these, which show the ability to pay attention and experience similar feelings: “I can understand your frustration. I can see how hard this is for you. I can hear that this is not what you hoped for.” Just don’t say you “know” what the other person is feeling. Attention can be paid by saying things like this: “Tell me more. I want to understand

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man sitting at end of dock on lake looking at mountains with snow

EAR Statements Can Calm Clients and Anyone, Especially in Today’s World

EAR Statements Can Calm Clients and Anyone, Especially in Today’s World ©2021 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. We all need empathy, attention, and respect—especially in these days of stress and polarization. Professionals are often expected to show these qualities when working with clients, even under the worst of circumstances. While we have been teaching EAR Statements to professionals for over fifteen years, we have finally published a book on this technique for anyone, Calming Upset People with EAR: How Statements Showing Empathy, Attention and Respect Can Quickly Defuse a Conflict (Unhooked Books, 2021). Whether you are at work, at home, in a legal dispute, or a community conflict, you can use an EAR Statement to manage or reduce the tension between people.   Emotions are Contagious This book explains why and how EAR Statements can work in turning hostile conversations into positive interactions. It helps to understand why this technique works most of the time. Our emotions are contagious and yet we can over-ride our instinctive responses if we pay attention to them. When I researched this for the book, I found that there really are at least three steps to how we receive emotions from others: Emotional contagion (our automatic reactions). This includes our amygdala responses in our brains, which can occur within less than a tenth of a second without our even realizing it. Also, our mirror neurons make us start to mirror the emotion that is being expressed toward us, whether anger, fear, and so forth. This gives us the human ability to act together for group survival. Emotion regulation (our conscious control learned with age). This is the part that we can control if we are paying attention and also if we have learned not to react because certain situations aren’t really a threat even though they might look like it. For example, if you see a train locomotive coming right at you on your TV screen. You can over-ride your amygdala and mirror neuron responses, especially with practice. That’s a big part of our learning as we grow up: what’s a crisis and what’s not a crisis. Mood state (our resulting positive or negative emotions). After we have interpreted another’s emotions as a threat or not a threat, then we end up with our own mood state. In other words, it’s possible to turn someone’s anger toward us into our own positive energy toward them. Of course, this takes some practice. That’s where EAR Statements come in.   How to Give an EAR Statement EAR Statements are designed to be used during a live conversation, whether in person, over the phone, or on Zoom or some other video platform. This way you have the opportunity to calm an upset person on the spot. An EAR Statement communicates empathy, attention and/or respect. It might be one of these elements or all three. Even just one sentence can communicate EAR, especially if it is said with a tone of voice and facial expression that shows sincerity with the statement. Here are some examples: Empathy: “I can understand how frustrating this can be.” “I can see how hard this has been on you.” “I can hear how upsetting this is.” Statements that start with “I can see/hear/understand…” imply that you are seeing the person as an equal who may be experiencing feelings and frustrations that we all share at times. This is one of the key differences between empathy and sympathy. With sympathy, you might observe someone going through something that you just can’t relate to, such that you’re feeling pity for the person, rather than a potentially shared experience. When they’re upset, people want to feel empathy rather than looked down upon. Hearing that you have empathy for them usually calms people down right away because that is what they are looking for in times of difficulty. We humans like group support in times of need. Attention: “I’ll pay attention.” “Tell me more.” “I want to understand what’s going on.” These types of comments are often reassuring because an upset person knows that they are going to be getting your attention, so they don’t need to fight for it. Keeping good eye contact helps with this. Leaning in while listening attentively can communicate interest. Respect: “That was a really helpful presentation you gave on Friday.” “I have a lot of respect for your commitment to your children’s health and welfare.” “I respect your relationship with our daughter.” “Congratulations on your new job.” “I appreciate your help on this.” More than anything, people need respect these days. Feeling disrespected can drive a lot of negative behavior, yet it doesn’t cost us anything to give respect to each other on a regular basis. We can respect someone who has a very different opinion from ours and still get along. These are the basic ingredients of an EAR Statement, whether you use one sentence communicating one of these or combine all three into a statement.   Mask Example Throughout the book are over twenty examples of upset conversations and then how either person could use an EAR Statement to turn the conversation around. One the best ways to explain this is to use a current Covid situation, as described in Chapter 10: “EAR for Political Discussions.” Many conflicts have arisen over the issue of wearing masks in public places, including grocery stores. The following is a common situation in a store aisle coming with two people with carts coming toward each other from opposite directions.   Scenario #1: MASK WEARER: “Don’t come so close to me and my child. You should be wearing a mask! It’s the state guideline.” ANTI-MASKER: “Don’t tell me what I have to do! It’s just a recommendation, so I don’t have to wear a mask if I don’t want to. Besides, its abusive for you to require your child to wear a mask. You should remove that at once.” MASK WEARER: “Now, listen buddy. Don’t you tell ME what to do! I don’t want us

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