If you need to communicate in writing with a manipulator great advice from the High Conflict Institute says to use the BIFF response and avoid the 3 A’s.
When I was going through the custody battle with my ex I made lots of mistakes in my style of communication that just made the situation worse and confused the picture. My ex has an extremely aggressive and manipulative personality and I still have to deal with him on a regular basis. Over the years however I have learned a lot of the techniques that help to contain the chaos. Many of these techniques are applicable in lots of situations in life where you have to deal with difficult people.
Where you are dealing with a manipulator in writing you need to keep things as clear cut as possible. Manipulators thrive on creating chaos and reversing the victim and offender (DARVO). Your ordinary instincts to defend yourself or to make them see how unreasonable they are being will backfire when you are dealing with a manipulator. They will use this to go on the war path, gaslight you, misrepresent you, accuse you of attacking and abusing them and create so much confusion and noise that it becomes unclear who is the real problem. This gets you into serious problems especially when a third party is going to be looking through the communications to see who is instigating the conflict. The picture can become so confused that a third party might even conclude that you are the aggressor. When dealing with these people you need to consciously endeavour to learn the rules of the game for dealing with a***holes.
By using what is known as a BIFF response you keep things as clean as possible from your side. The acronym BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. The objective is that should a third party view these communications in view of making a judgement over who is instigating the conflict, then you make it as clear as possible that the other person is the problem.
If you receive a written communication from your problem character that sends you into a tail-spin then try the following…
If you feel panicky when you receive an aggressive email or the like always sit on it for say 24 hours. Never reply when you are in a state of heightened emotion.
Then decide if you need to reply at all. Do not assume that silence necessarily implies that you are guilty of something. When dealing with these people it is often the safest option. Also if they continue to attack when you are not responding or responding minimally then they start to look like the person with the problem not you.
If you do need to reply then use the BIFF response. See the High Conflict Institute’s page on How to Reply to Angry Texts and Emails:
- Brief: Keep it brief. Long explanations and arguments trigger upsets for High Conflict Persons.
In my personal experience manipulators or High Conflict Persons (HCP’s) are not so much upset by long explanations and arguments, it is just that if you give them information you are giving them more opportunity to find ways to deliberately attack you and undermine you by scheming to turn the situation against you.
- Informative: Focus on straight information, not arguments, opinions, emotions or defending yourself (you don’t need to)
The big trap here is “defending yourself”. Just don’t do it. Seize the moral high ground and act like whatever they are saying does not deign a response from you. If you do start to defend yourself or apologise this will just be manipulated and turned around to make you look even more guilty of the false accusation. Say less not more if in doubt.
- Friendly: Have a friendly greeting (such as “Thanks for responding to my request”); close with a friendly comment (such as “Have a good weekend”).
This works because it disrupts their attempts to reverse victim and offender. They will have a tougher time playing the victim and vilifying you if you are friendly in your response. Playing the servant also works. By using this counter-manipulation tactic they have difficulty coming back at you. This works for the same reason. It disrupts the reversal of victim and offender that they use to try to turn the situation around. If appropriate, implying that you are trying to benefit them in some way or make them look good can diffuse things or at least make it more difficult for them to vilify you.
- Firm: Have your response end the conversation. Or give two choices on an issue and ask for a reply by a certain date.
Give them some kind of boundary. A wall for them to flail against. It ends the chaos and makes them look like the aggressive a***holes that they are. Weak boundaries invites more chaos. Only make agreements you can keep then stick rigidly to them even if you think you might be being unreasonable. Being a bit unreasonable and then sticking to it is much safer with these people and you will come off looking much better than being over-reasonable and allowing the chaos they try to instigate to take hold. If you end up having to go back on an agreement they will use it against you. If you allow them closer than necessary to you because you wanted to be reasonable they have more opportunities to attack. If you use BIFF and hold firm with strong boundaries, it will be much clearer to whoever is viewing this communication that they are the problem not you.
If you are in a tangle with a manipulator it is likely you easily doubt yourself and wonder if you might be wrong. Make a conscious effort not to question yourself too much. Especially don’t worry about whether you are being fair to them. That is not the game you are in. You are dealing with someone who is trying to totally screw you over. Giving them wiggle room, extra chances and so on just gives them plenty of inroads to try to create chaos, turn the situation around and confuse victim and offender in the minds of anyone examining the communications.
Then AVOID doing any of the 3 A’s, see again the High Conflict Institute’s page How to Reply to Angry Texts and Emails:
- 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 email/texts. It’s better to avoid unsolicited advice such as “You just need to do X.” Make a proposal instead.
Manipulators get triggered by this one because it challenges their dominance.
- 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.
They will just feel the need to try even harder to turn the tables to make everything your fault. It makes it easier for them to paint you as the abusive person.
- Apologies. Most of us apologize sometimes, but it easily backfires with HCPs. “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 an HCP will use against you to place blame and defend their actions.
Their objective is to make you the bad person. Don’t give them any help on this by admitting fault even if you are wrong about something.
I found this to be very good advice from the High Conflict Institute.
I personally however learned over time that it is not helpful to view them as behaving “defensively” or that in any way you are trying to get them to “hear you”.
I found that the essential character of the behaviour of a manipulator was predatory not defensive. The implication that there is a way to get your point across which invites the manipulator to behave better because they will not feel the need to be defensive is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. They are not defending. They are attacking. The more they know, the more they will use that to attack you.
You can’t get these characters to hear you. They have no shame. Let go of the idea you can get them to see the error of their ways and there is a reasonable human being in there somewhere. Difficult as it might be to believe for conscientious individuals, especially if this is someone you were in a romantic relationship with, at the core, characters like this are egotistical, self-serving, aggressive with very little to no capacity for shame, empathy or remorse. As Dr George K. Simon points out in his book In Sheep’s Clothing. Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People “it’s not that they don’t see, it’s that they disagree”. They are simply engaged in trying to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes about where the responsibility lies. Don’t help them to dump it all on you.
Whatever the case may be in relation to the degree of awareness and motivation of the manipulator, the fact that in many cases they are acting with malevolent intent is another good reason not to engage in the 3 A’s.
Here are some examples and the suggested BIFF response copied from How to Reply to Angry Texts and Emails
A Family Member Example:
“Thanks for nothing. My boss threatened to fire me today. Some sister you are! I TOLD YOU I COULDN’T BE LATE AGAIN. You know I’ve been meaning to get the car checked. I can’t control when it breaks down. BUT YOU COULDN’T BE BOTHERED WITH HELPING ME GET THERE, COULD YOU???? You and your FANCY JOB. You don’t have to worry about unreasonable bosses. You could have taken time off to help YOUR OWN BROTHER!!! Mom’s mad at you too. I hope you’re happy!”
“Hi Bob, I’m glad you were able to make it and that you still have your job. As I said this morning, I couldn’t miss my meeting. I can make time to help you drop off your car for repairs on Saturday or Tuesday. Let me know by 11:00 tomorrow what day and time you need to go since I must give advance notice to my work. If I don’t hear by then, I’ll just assume you won’t need my help with it. Have fun at the baseball game tonight. –Sue.”
A Divorce Example:
Text from the Ex:
“I got a new lawyer today. Boy, are you in trouble. All the BS you say about me is going to get you hammered in court. You’ll NEVER get any custody because you’re such a sack of s**t and you’re going to have to give me a ton of money. Lots more than that crappy amount you pay now. I hate you and now you’ll be sorry you filed for divorce.”
Nothing. Sometimes the hardest part of a BIFF Response is not doing it at all. Choose to ignore this and you’ll avoid spending the next few hours battling it out.
A Co-Parenting Example:
Text from Mom:
“Thanks for nothing you pile of crap. Those clothes you bought for his birthday are junk. I’ll be asking the judge for more money so I can get him something decent to wear when he does things like go to his doctor appointment on Thursday. Drop dead.”
“Thanks for letting me know about his doctor appointment. I’ll check in after to hear what the doc said.”
A workplace Example:
Team member email:
“Who do you think you are? You’re messing up the whole project and making me look bad!!!! You know we were supposed to turn in the figures yesterday, but noooo. You’re so important you thought you could get away with a TWO-HOUR BREAK. I couldn’t get it done and it’s YOUR fault! You need to get your s**t together, EVERYONE thinks so!!!”
“Hi Coworker A, I appreciate your concern for getting reports in on time. As I mentioned in my email to everyone last week, my meeting could not be rescheduled. I’ve attached a copy of the email for you. You’ll see that Ms. Boss gave us an extension until Friday. I am available all afternoon. What time can you meet to finish the figures? Have a good morning. –Me”
A Public Accusation Example
Email cc’d to everyone in the office:
“In case you hadn’t noticed, we are all busy around here. Why is it that you spend your whole day checking your Facebook and watching YouTube? I don’t think this is the best use of company time so on behalf of everyone here, I ask that you get back to work.”
You should respond with factual information when potentially damaging misinformation is sent to a wider audience and has the risk of doing some harm. You don’t want your supervisor believing you spend all day watching cat videos, so you write:
“Hello everyone, Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to address this. I appreciate my coworkers’ attentiveness to the use of company time so I would like to clarify that I am doing assigned research for the new social media campaign and was asked to review how other companies use media platforms for trends and ideas. I’m sure we are all working hard to make the campaign successful. I wish you all a good day. –signed Coworker”
If you know what to expect from an HCP, and you have practiced and prepared, giving a good BIFF Response is a lot easier and starts to come naturally over time. Good luck!