BIFF: 4 Ways to Respond to Hostile Comments
Get respect with responses that are brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
Posted September 30, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Hostile comments can show up anywhere, including in emails, letters, on Facebook, comments to internet articles, and in-person. Should you ignore them? React in the same hostile tone? Or is there a better way?
A BIFF Response® is a way to respond that usually puts a stop to the hostilities while leaving you feeling good about yourself. BIFF stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm. We have been teaching this method for the past 12 years and the feedback has been universally positive.
Here are the four parts of a BIFF response:
Brief: Keep it short, typically a paragraph. This is even when the comment you’re responding to goes on and on for many paragraphs or pages. This leaves much less for the other person to react to and is often sufficient to get your main point across.
Informative: Give some straight information, rather than emotions, opinions, defenses or arguments. You don’t need to defend yourself when another person is being hostile. It’s not about you. It’s about their inability to manage their emotions and responses. Just stay focused on providing relevant information.
Friendly: This may seem hard to do when you’re being attacked in writing or verbally. But this avoids feeding the hostilities and may even calm an upset person. Just a friendly greeting and closing; nothing too involved. This helps keep the hostilities from escalating. It also shows that you have good self-restraint.
Firm: This means that you end the conversation rather than feeding the hostilities. It doesn’t mean harsh. Just avoid anything that opens the door to more hostile comments back. Say something that calmly ends the conversation. Sometimes, you will need a response from the other person, so just ask a question seeking a Yes or No answer by such-and-such time and/or date. Then end on a friendly note.
A Resentful Friend Example
"Samantha, I can’t believe that you used me to help you with your math homework. I mean, I did all the work and you just took advantage of me. I’m tired of you taking me for granted, just because I had an extra semester of math. What are you going to do for me? I mean, what are friends for? Not to be used!”
"Yolanda, thank you for your email. I thought about it a lot. I agree we should stop doing our math homework together. It will help us each try harder to learn it ourselves. I’m still glad that we’re friends and will talk about other things when we’re together.”
Samantha thought about including this sentence: “But I disagree that I was just ‘using’ you and not helping you at all.” But after reading it out loud to herself, she decided to leave this out. That would have been defensive and just kept the argument going. The problem is solved already by stopping doing math homework together. No need to go backward in time and open up the past, which people rarely agree on anyway if it’s already become hostile. So she kept it brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
An Angry Divorce Example
“Jane, I can’t believe you are so stupid as to think that I’m going to let you take the children to your boss’ birthday party during my parenting time. Have you no memory of the last six conflicts we’ve had about my parenting time? Or are you having an affair with him? I always knew you would do anything to get ahead! In fact, I remember coming to your office party witnessing you making a total fool of yourself–including flirting with everyone from the CEO down to the delivery guy! Are you high on something? Haven’t you gotten your finances together enough to support yourself yet, without flinging yourself at every Tom, Dick, and Harry? ...”
“Thank you for responding to my request to take the children to my office party. Just to clarify, the party will be from 3-5 on Friday at the office and there will be approximately 30 people there–including several other parents bringing school-age children. There will be no alcohol, as it is a family-oriented firm and there will be family-oriented activities. I think it will be a good experience for them to see me at my workplace. With this information I hope you will reconsider. Please let me know by Thursday at 5 P.M. if you change your mind. Thanks!”
An Office Example
Roberta was fired for several violations of company policies. She writes this email to the human resources manager:
"Hi Jerry, I had another job interview this week. This is good, because my medical benefits are running out, thanks to you. You had no right to ruin my career and make it impossible for me to get a good letter of reference. Your corrupt company will be exposed sooner or later. By the way, I need a copy of that last list of job duties that I had. I’ve asked you three times for it, and you refuse to respond. Let me know if I need to drop by to pick it up. Your old friend, Roberta"
Here’s the first draft of Jerry’s response to Roberta:
“Hi Roberta, First of all, it will not benefit you at all to make threats about “exposing” our company. We have done nothing wrong and are ready to refute any claims you may raise against us. I was not aware of you ever asking for a list of your job duties. Please see it attached. As a reminder, you are not allowed to return to our company, nor allowed to set foot on our grounds. We will have you arrested if you attempt to do so. I hope that this message is clear. Sincerely, Jerry Butler, Human Resource Manager”
Is this a BIFF Response®? It’s brief and informative. But it’s not friendly and firm. It will unnecessarily invite another negative response from Roberta. Do you think the following is better?
“Dear Roberta, I’m glad you’re making progress and getting interviews. I really want you to find a company that’s a good fit for you. I am attaching a copy of your job duties. I hope that helps! Best wishes! Jerry”
This is brief, informative, friendly, and firm. By keeping it short and simple, he didn’t engage with her too much and gently ended the conversation with a friendly tone. He didn’t need to make extra comments about how she wrote her first response to him. He just kept it brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
There are many more tips for BIFF Responses® in my book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns and in videos on our website. The idea is to calm the conflict rather than escalate it, restraining your urge to attack the other person back. You can stop the hostile conversation without getting down in the mud yourself. Just keep it brief, informative, friendly, and firm.