Respect and Empathy: Critical Components of Non-Adversarial Dispute Resolution

Digging deep within yourself to find empathy and understanding when you’re under attack can feel impossible. Why should you be the bigger person? Are you supposed to ignore personal attacks? It’s icing on an already bitter cake, and it may be too much to swallow. Don’t despair. Find the right coping tools, and you can draw from reserves of empathy and learn to respect again, even in a tense dispute.

Co-founder and Training Director of San Diego’s High Conflict Institute, Bill Eddy is an attorney, therapist and mediator with years of expertise in resolving disputes with high-conflict individuals. In his book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns, he outlines steps to effectively communicate with—and even understand—high-conflict spouses.

Eddy focuses on the “BIFF” approach: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. This technique empowers you to regain control of the communication. And the approach can be used via email, on the phone, in person or even by text. The key, he argues, is to move you from “react mode” to “respond mode.”


You may have difficulty seeing the need to be respectful to someone who fundamentally isn’t showing you respect. But that’s precisely why you should do it. If you are as dismissive and hurtful as your spouse, then your spouse is still running the show. Yet with polite, firm but respectful communication, you are taking the reins of the conversation. You are in charge, because you’re refusing to play the escalation game. Even if your partner doesn’t immediately respond in kind, it’s important that you establish the tone you want the conversation to take.


It may feel downright impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a high-conflict person. But don’t focus on the anger. Focus on how, as Eddy points out, “people with high-conflict personalities have been criticized, rejected, humiliated and told to change since a very early age.” It may be helpful to allow yourself to picture your partner as a child experiencing this pain.

In Eddy’s work, he has seen how talk that expresses compassion and kindness, or, as he calls it statements of “EAR: empathy, attention and respect” can help diffuse the situation. Partners “can quickly calm HCPs (high conflict people) and help them much more than by criticizing them.”

For help navigating a high-conflict divorce, contact us at Westchester Family Law to schedule a confidential consultation.

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