Responding to Hostile Communication
When people communicate with us in a hostile, angry, dismissive, or chaotic manner, it can be hard to hold healthy boundaries and it is easy to respond in a way that escalates the problem. Here are some suggestions for how to respond in ways that might reduce everyone’s anger and frustrations.
First, do your best to make sure you have accurate facts before you respond. If you are not sure of what the facts are, go ahead and ask clarifying questions. However, if you need to make a response without knowing all the facts, you can point out the assumptions you are relying on, and ask for clarification as needed.
If you need to respond quickly, Bill Eddy suggests keeping your response to one of three simple answers: “Yes”, “No”, or “I’ll think about it”. Other options for the third answer include:
- “It depends…”
- “Can we think about that a little?”
- “You think about it some more.”
- “I would like some more information about that.”
Here are two other approaches.
Bill Ury suggests using “Yes, no, yes”, where your initial response is to find a way to say “Yes”, then say “No” (with or without actually saying the word “no”), indicating the particular request or solution is not appropriate, and then say “Yes”, identifying the person’s true need, followed by finding a different way to meet that need. For example, “Yes, I agree we need to change the time we exchange the kids on Sunday evening. 9:00 p.m. won’t work for me but 6:00 p.m. would work. How is that for you?”
Another great suggestion from Bill Eddy, for a fuller response: give an answer which is Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (BIFF), while avoiding admonishments, advice and apologies. The basic idea is to use a strategy that can help you not react in a manner you might regret, and which also de-escalates the other person’s hostility. It is usually best not to respond immediately, and go ahead and write the draft that you feel like writing. For this first draft, it might be safest to not write it in your email program because you are probably not going to send this version. Later, maybe the next day, write the draft you need to write, without emotion and blame. Keep the communication Brief – a few sentences will usually do. Be Informative – sticking to the facts. If you are not sure about the facts, it’s okay to identify your assumptions or ask clarifying questions. Keep the tone of your communication Friendly. Finally, be Firm. This is where thinking about and holding healthy boundaries comes into play. You may need to have clear boundaries about whether or not you are interested in ongoing communications on the issue, or willing to bend the rules.
Here is an article about using BIFF by Bill Eddy:
For more information:
Bill Eddy, Biff: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns (2011)
William Ury The power of a positive no (2007)