Skip to main content

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Having a continued connection to your former, or soon-to-be former partner is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges to overcome. However, if you have children together, you will most likely be required to communicate with each other on an ongoing basis about your child(ren). This can be extremely difficult when dealing with high-conflict people or high-conflict cases.

Some key points to remember:

  1. Just because your ex says it, it doesn’t make it true.
  2. Your initial reaction might be to set your ex straight and defend yourself – take a deep breath, count to ten, and calm yourself before responding.
  3. Unless there is a dire emergency, do not feel that you need to respond immediately. Take some time to compose your response, and even sit on it overnight before sending.
  4. Our Family Wizard or other communication websites/apps are a helpful tool in high conflict cases.
  5. Respond with the mindset that the Judge, attorneys, or other professionals involved in your case may read your message. Hostile communications can impact the outcome of your case.
  6. Keep your communications short and to the point. Focus on the topic at hand and not past issues.

One of the most effective methods of communicating in high conflict situations is the BIFF method developed by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., co-founder of the High Conflict Institute.

Mr. Eddy recommends the following:

Rule #1 is always to ask: “Do I need to reply to this at all?”  

Read the email/ text with a critical eye: Is there anything that really requires a reply? (A deadline, an appointment, a PTA conference, a needed decision). Look for valid matters and ignore the barbs.  A decision on an appointment time is valid. An accusation that you never communicate is invalid. Asking what time to pick up a child is valid.  Saying everybody is mad at you/blaming you is not valid. Additionally, a decision needed for a concrete issue is only valid if it’s new.  Further demands to discuss the same matter are not valid and need no reply, or a shorter version- one time – of what you said last time. Do not take the bait when the next re-worded email with the same demand comes along.

If you need to reply, then follow the BIFF Method:

  • Brief: Keep it brief. Long explanations and arguments trigger upsets for high conflict persons and high conflict situations.
  • Informative: Focus on straight information, not arguments, opinions, emotions or defending yourself (you do not need to).
  • Friendly: Have a friendly greeting (such as “Thanks for responding to my request”); close with a friendly comment (such as “Have a good weekend”).
  • Firm: Have your response end the conversation. Or give two choices on an issue and ask for a reply by a certain date.

Leave out the 3 A’s:

  • Advice. Are you telling the other person what to do, how to behave, or how to feel? If so, you can expect a defensive reaction and more emails/texts. It’s better to avoid unsolicited advice such as “You just need to do X.” Make a proposal instead.
  • Admonishments. Telling a defensive or upset person what they do wrong and how to fix it will just make them more defensive and earn you another accusatory reply. Things like “You’re overreacting” or “You should be ashamed” are not going to help them hear you.
  • Apologies. Most of us apologize sometimes, but it easily backfires. “Sorry I was late” is OK as a social nicety. “I’m sorry my email upset you” is accepting responsibility for the other person’s emotions. It’s almost guaranteed to be taken as an admission of guilt, which a high conflict person will use against you to place blame and defend their actions.

In closing, practice, practice, practice! This stuff is not easy and it will take time and practice for BIFF responses to become second nature. Ask your paralegal or attorney for help in reviewing and editing a response before you send it if you are unsure of yourself. Once you master this technique it will become second nature and you will find yourself implementing it in other situations, such as work or family communications.

Raesha de Ruiter Zylker, Paralegal, Terry & deGraauw, P.C. April 2022