The High Conflict Individual:  How to Communicate Without Losing It Ourselves 

The high conflict individual is someone that, as divorce lawyers, we come across frequently. We come across these people as opposing parties in our cases, and sometimes as the opposing lawyer.

The high conflict individual is a master at sending us hostile email, texts, and other electronic communications that are intended to (and often do) make us lose our minds. Because such people are all too common of an occurrence in the family law context, someone, thank goodness has come up with a remedy.

The thing is that when we are dealing with high conflict people, they are a total nightmare.The amount of time, energy, and effort that we spend on a high conflict person is often a ridiculous amount. When reacting to high-conflict emails or texts, we can end up losing it ourselves and serving nobody. 

For the family law client, they can end up responding in such a way that harms their case. 

So what do we, as divorce lawyers, do when dealing with outrageously hostile emails and texts? What do we tell our clients to do when encountering the high conflict individual?

Bill Eddy, from the High Conflict Institute, has coined the term BIFF for communicating with high conflict people.

At Hemminger Law Group Westshore, right from our first consultation, we tell our clients to use the BIFF communication tool when dealing with the high conflict individual. The BIFF format is a structure that helps us craft our responses in such a way that does not hurt our client's case. An added bonus is that it helps us not lose it ourselves. The BiFF format has the following four elements. It should be used in all electronic communication when responding to a high conflict individual. Keep all communication:

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The High Conflict Individual and BIFF:

1.  Brief
2.  Informative
3.  Friendly
4.  Firm

At our law firm, when our clients are continuously dealing with a hostile ex-spouse, we suggest they use the BIFF formula. We also suggest that they don't bother in that they do not bother trying to convince their ex-spouse as to the rightness of their position. It will never work.

Watch how to manage the high conflict person:

Real Life Example From Our Law Firm:

Let us use the following example: 

We have a client who I will call Jennifer. She and her husband, we will call him, Dick, have divorced, and he has gone on to move in with his girlfriend who happens to be the same woman he had been having an affair with during the marriage. Dick is what we describe as the high conflict individual type.

The children have been telling Jennifer that the new girlfriend, we will call her Cruella, is mean to them. The children describe specific and possible examples, like the fact that Cruella pulls their hair when putting it in pigtails, that she sends them to their rooms for hours at a time, and that she continuously insults them and makes negative comments about Jennifer.

Dick and Jennifer are going to court in a few months' time because Jennifer wants to limit Dick's parenting time due to the treatment the Children receive in Cruella's and Dick's home.

One day, Jennifer asked if she could take the children to an event on a weekend that the children would normally be in Dick's care. Dick responded with:

Isn't this just like you to take your controlling attitude and try to keep my children from me and their new mom. Just because you are jealous and hate Cruella and me, you wish to take it out on my children. When are you going to grow up and stop behaving like such a baby? It is just like you to promise my kids that they will do something else during my parenting time rather than be with their Dad. You are such a loser.

What we instructed our client to do was respond in the BIFF format which looks something like this:

Thank you for your timely response (friendly) to my request. Please be advised that this was a special event, and I did not share information about it with the children. They do not know anything about it (informative). I recognize that weekend is your parenting time, and I am withdrawing my request (firm) (overall, brief).

We advise that our client not defend herself against Dick's insults and accusations. We also encourage her not to spend the time, effort and energy to explain her side of the situation. More often than not clients have a hard time resisting defending themselves in the face of such insults. Jennifer wants to explain to Dick that she is not jealous (she is so over it; if anything Jennifer is glad Cruella came along because she was not sure how to end her unhappy marriage). She wants to explain to Dick that he is not the problem, but that Cruella is. She would not have a problem with Cruella either but for the fact that Cruella is mean to their children. What we know for sure is that no matter what Jennifer says to Dick, he is not going to absorb or accept what she says. If anything, if Jennifer reacts to Dicks' hurtful insults, it could end up moving her case backward. 

For the divorce lawyer, BIFF communication is also useful when dealing with nasty opposing counsel. It allows us to respond rather than react to rude and hostile communication. We are far better advocates when we are not losing it ourselves. 

Written by Val Hemminger, Divorce Lawyer 

Val has created this website to share with her colleagues. She  is not suggesting, by any means, that she is the best divorce lawyer out there. She is, however, suggesting that she is the best divorce lawyer that she herself can be. Feel free to share anything you find useful.