I was recently sitting at my desk when I received a text message from a phone number I didn’t recognize. In rapid succession I received the following missives:
- “I don’t respect people who hit children.”
- “You belong in jail for the rest of your life!”
- “Where you can hit a woman!”
- “LMAO, who’s not on parole!”
- “How pathetic what a cheater you are too.”
This person, who was obviously in distress around a family law matter and possibly even dealing with domestic violence, was exhibiting a habit I see often with my clients: Talking to a spouse or partner directly becomes so emotionally difficult, they start using text messages as their main source of communication. While it can feel easier or safer to express difficult feelings by text or email, separating and divorcing couples should use these methods of communication only if they are careful about what they are writing before hitting the send button.
When we communicate electronically, we lose the ability to hear and see voice tones, body language and facial expressions, which are all things that activate a region of the brain called the amygdala and which tell us whether we are safe or whether we need to fight or flee. When I see email or text exchanges between my divorcing clients, I’m usually struck by how something I consider a simple miscommunication can be interpreted by my client as a slight or some other type of threat. Oftentimes, the party in receipt of that “threatening” email reacts in a way that inflicts similar pain. And from that place of polarized conflict the two parties spiral into a vortex of even more contentious messages and misunderstood intentions. The good news is that there are ways to stop electronic conflicts from escalating.
Bill Eddy, who founded the High Conflict Institute, has developed what he calls the “BIFF Response” method of responding to electronic communications. He recommends being Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm:
- 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 write your response and end your message. Don’t take their statements personally and don’t respond with a personal attack. You don’t have to defend yourself to someone you disagree with.
- The main reason to respond to hostile mail is to correct inaccurate statements which 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.
- 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 not be able to reduce the conflict with personal attacks. You will only make the situation worse. 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.
- While you may be tempted to write in anger, you are more likely to achieve your goals by writing in a friendly manner. Consciously thinking about 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 being friendly has the greatest likelihood of success. Don’t give the other person a reason to get defensive and keep responding.
- You do not have to be overly friendly. Just make it sound a little relaxed and non-antagonistic. If appropriate, say you recognize their concerns. Brief comments that show your empathy and respect will generally calm the other person down, even if only for a short time.
- In a non-threatening way, clearly tell the other person your information or position on an issue and let them know that’s all you are going to say about it. Be careful not to make comments that invite more discussion, unless you are negotiating an issue or want to keep a dialogue going back and forth. Avoid comments that leave an opening, such as: “I hope you will agree with me that …” This invites the other person to tell you “I don’t agree.”
Adopted from the High Conflict Institute:
If you’re in the middle of divorce and using mediation or collaborative law, you are likely very conscious of the way you are communicating with your spouse in the presence of the mediator or lawyers as you work to move toward a resolution of your differences. By keeping the BIFF Response method in mind, your text and email exchanges can support all that hard work you’re doing to achieve a divorce that is non-adversarial.
To learn more about non-adversarial divorce, contact me here.
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