We’ve all encountered them, and they exist almost everywhere: the difficult person. Difficult people do exist, and at some point or another you will probably be confronted with the need to deal with a high conflict, or difficult person. Most of us are proficient in our communication skills and feel more or less effective in our ability to work through problems with others. However, if you have ever experienced a difficult person, you know that your usual approach flies like a lead balloon, and no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. This article will introduce you to some tips on how to deal with the difficult people in your life.
Who is a difficult person?
Anyone is capable of being a difficult person from time to time. For most of us this will be because of extenuating circumstances and we usually come around after not too long. However, some people have a greater predisposition to high conflict behavior. The “difficult person” will have a historical pattern of being surrounded by conflict in their lives. They are often adversarial in nature, self-absorbed, defensive, irrational, and highly emotional. Difficult people tend to have strained interpersonal relationships and those who interact with them on a regular basis feel exhausted and drained.
When dealing with a difficult person, it is important to know that the approaches you might typically use to deescalate a conflict are not as effective. In fact, some strategies might actually cause more harm than do good! Dealing with difficult people in the wrong way can exacerbate conflict, but the right approach can stave off stress and help you feel more in control.
How to respond
In his book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. introduces the BIFF model to responding to difficult people. The acronym BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm – all the elements that are necessary for an effective response to a high conflict person.
The BIFF response can be written or said, and can be used by anyone. Following this model is not a guarantee of a positive outcome, but is far less likely to incite aggression from the receiver. According to Eddy, the most common mistake people make when responding to difficult people is to respond with emotion. Brain research shows us that our ability to think rationally is impaired when we are very upset, and thus you are not likely to be thinking clearly if you respond immediately. Eddy suggests that you calm yourself down first, either by taking a break, getting exercise, distraction, or talking to someone neutral before you respond.
Although it takes practice and sometimes coaching to use BIFF statements correctly, the following tips will help you get a jump start on responding differently to the difficult person in your life.
- Don’t respond emotionally
- Keep it brief
- Include information and neutral observations
- Refrain from making accusations
- Be friendly
- Abstain from advice-giving
- Focus on what you want the person to do – not what he or she did wrong
- Never apologize
- Invite someone you trust to review your response before you reply
Below is an example of a BIFF response to a high-conflict supervisor:
“Catherine, I want you to know that since you were absent from work yesterday the ENTIRE team had to cover your weight. I hope you’re proud of yourself for screwing us all over. We had to get that presentation prepared and you knew it! If this happens again, there will be severe consequences.”
“Dear Mark, Thanks for letting me know about your concerns about my absence yesterday. I was sick with the stomach flu from something I ate. I know how important this presentation is to our team. This presentation is important to me, too, and I look forward to contributing now that I am feeling better.”
There is no single “right” way to write a BIFF response. If you have been dealing with the difficult person in your life for some time, you might feel vulnerable to criticism and attack. Be patient with yourself and keep the focus on responding in a way that you can feel good about. There is no guarantee that the person will respond kindly in return, but you will ultimately have the satisfaction of knowing that you did your best not to engage in the high conflict behavior.