Dealing with Porcupines

Need to calm a combative conversation? Consider BIFF. No, I am not talking about Biff Tannen the bully in Back to the Future or the Boulder International Film Festival. Rather, I am referring to the High Conflict Institute’s highly effective method of responding to difficult people, personal attacks, hostile email and meltdowns. A BIFF response is Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. BIFF responses also avoid the three As: advice, admonishments and apologies. Use BIFF to accomplish any one of three goals: 1) manage the relationship, 2) reduce the relationship or 3) end the relationship.  

The BIFF method:

Brief: Keep it short, typically a paragraph. The goal is to avoid triggering defensiveness.  

Informative: Give some straight information, rather than emotions, opinions, defenses or arguments.

Friendly: Include a friendly greeting and closing. This helps keep the hostilities from escalating. It also shows that you have good self-restraint.

Firm: Close the conversation. If you need a response from the other person, ask a yes or no question.    

BIFF in action:

After a long progressive disciplinary process for repeated failure to comply with university policies, the university terminated Mary. Tom is the employee relations specialist who handled the termination process.

Email from Mary to Tom

Hi Tom, 

I had another job interview this week.  This is good, because my medical benefits end at the end of the month, thanks to you.  You had no right to ruin my career and make it impossible for me to get a good letter of reference. The university and your corrupt department will be exposed sooner or later. By the way, I need a copy of my job duties. I have asked you for it three times and you refuse to respond. Let me know if I need to drop by to pick it up.

Your old friend,



Tom’s response to Mary

Dear Mary,

I’m glad you’re making progress and getting interviews.  I really want you to find an employer that’s a good fit for you.

I’m attaching a copy of your job duties.  I hope that helps!

Best wishes,


Is it a BIFF?

Brief? Yes, it’s very brief.

Informative? Yes, it explains he wants her to find a good fit, and he attaches her job duties. The response is not defensive, nor does it contain language to trigger defensiveness for her.

Friendly? Yes, he expresses his positive wishes and responds to her request with the desired information.

Firm? Yes. It does not invite a response to anything. He has put an end to that conversation, even though there may be more.

Did Tom include the three As? No, Tom doesn’t give any advice or admonishments and there’s nothing to apologize for. Instead he offers encouragement and hope.  

Two more considerations

Is a response necessary?  There are times when the best response, is no response at all. It might be better not to respond to unrestrained aggressive and disrespectful behavior, when:

  • No one else is involved in the communication accept you and the other person.  
  • There is no real issue to discuss.  Rather, it is a rant of personal attacks.
  • It is simply the other person’s opinion about your behavior, personality, etc.
  • It is clear you are not going to change the other person’s point of view.  
  • You have already responded sufficiently on the same subject.  

If you do respond, whom should you include in your response?  Try to include the same people who heard the inflammatory message.

Stop the cycle.  Be reasonable and protect your reputation by responding quickly, respectfully and civilly to people who treat you rudely. 

Based on BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Meltdowns and Social Media Meltdowns (Second Edition) by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. (2014).

You might also be interested in my Lunch and Learn presentation Dealing with Porcupines: Managing Communication with High Conflict People.

By Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

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