Communicating with high conflict people


Have you ever had to communicate with someone who wants to blame everyone else for their problems? This can be very challenging when someone cannot see their own role in the conflict that surrounds them. Although communicating with high conflict individuals occurs in business and in personal settings, I see it most often in divorcing couples, where there is anger, blaming and an unwillingness to accept the situation as it is.

Bill Eddy, the creator of The High Conflict Institute, has written a book, called BIFF: Quick responses to high conflict people, their personal attacks, hostile emails, and social media meltdowns (see it here on Amazon). BIFF is the acronym for how to respond appropriately to inflammatory, hostile communications from people at work or in your family. The idea is to defuse negativity by stating only necessary information in a respectful and determined manner.

Brief  –  Informative  –  Friendly  –  Firm

Brief: Stick to the facts. Don’t give any extra information to which the other party can use to inflict blame. The fewer words you use, the less the other person can be triggered to defensiveness.

Informative: Summarize your request or response to brief, fact centered words. Take all emotional response out. Do not include your feelings or what you think the other person should be doing/saying/etc. Do not react with blame directed toward the other person.

Friendly: A friendly tone disarms the other person, as they are not expecting this response to their hostility. You are conveying hope that the situation will be resolved. This can be the most difficult aspect of the BIFF. You do not have to be fake or pretend you care for the other person, you are simply being civil. A friendly tone can be as simple as closing your email with “best regards,” or “have a good weekend.”

Firm: Try to give choices instead of ultimatums. Be clear on your stance and provide factual consequences to choices. It is not helpful to tell the other person what they should be doing. This only raises defensiveness. Do not give unsolicited advice, or over-apologize.

Using the BIFF formula helps you detach from your own reactivity and an emotional response to the other person’s hostility. If the other person feels respected, he/she may be able to let go of some of their hostility and blame.

If you would like some guidance managing your responses to a high conflict individual, write me an email, or give me a call. 512-593-0583.

Peace, friends.

Falling asleep & 4 steps to sweet dreams


Sometimes, not often, I have trouble falling asleep. For whatever reason, I am not turning off my brain, settling in, and drifting off to nod-land. Does this ever happen to you? Last night, I crawled into bed, pretty tired after a busy day of both physical and mental activity. I was ready to sleep. I can usually drop right off, but instead my brain went into overdrive. Funny how the little, niggling things at the corners of my mind during waking hours become BIG, HUGE PROBLEMS in the dark! And when I can do nothing about them. 

So. Here are the steps I take for those infrequent times I can’t fall asleep. Perhaps these suggestions will enhance your sleep routine and lead to sweet dreams.


  1. Find your most comfortable position in bed. Do you sleep on your back, side, stomach? I sleep on my left side, in a semi-fetal position with my hands tucked up under my neck. Find the spot that feels right for your body. And it’s okay to change positions while you are going to sleep.
  2. Notice tension in your body. Where is it? Often, I realize I am still frowning and my forehead is very tight. So is my jaw. Find those areas that feel tense, or that you might be holding onto, and let go. Scan your entire body, tip to toe, for tension or tightness. Feel the sensation of your body sinking into the bed.
  3. Deep breathing. As you let go of tension, take three very deep breaths in, holding the breath at the top of the inhale for 1-2 seconds, and slowly exhale. This activity is a biological signal to your brain and your body that you wish to slow down. Your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged with deep breathing, and this sends calming neurochemicals through your bloodstream.
  4. Contemplation or prayer. I find that when I turn my attention away from my thoughts about my own big, huge problems, to thinking about others, I am able to relax and fall asleep. I do this in several ways, and you will find what works for you. 1) Send a blessing to all the people in my life, by invoking their name, silently. I have a lot of blessings, so sometimes I fall asleep before I finish. 2) Say a particular prayer, repeated slowly with intention. 3) Use techniques from my meditation practice to empty my mind of all thoughts. I do this by focusing on my in and out breath and an image I always call to mind. Also, I think of myself as a big, empty bowl. Nothing stays in it, only the breath flows over it.

I hope these steps will guide your sleep routine so that you will experience deep, restorative rest. What other techniques do you use to help you fall asleep? I’d love to hear from you with your ideas.


If you are having chronic sleep problems due to the big, huge problems in your life, call me to see if we might explore these together. I offer a safe, non-judgmental, and compassionate space to facilitate the exploration of things that trouble you. Call me at 512-593-0583 for a free 20-minute phone consultation.

Sweet dreams, friends.

Change the way you respond to the world – 7 words


A number of years ago, a wise teacher (yes, it was my therapist) invited me to change the way I respond to the world. At the time, I was complaining about other people’s behavior toward me, and about the perceived injustices I was experiencing. I was angry, sad, reactive and unwilling to see the part I was playing in my own misery.

Refusing to be drawn into my drama, he calmly listed 7 words to eradicate from my vocabulary. Doing so would shift my attitudes about the choices I make in life and how I respond to the events in my life.

Are you ready for the 7 words to eliminate? Here they are:


ought to

have to


need to

supposed to

got to

you better

Pause here. Consider for a few moments what it would be like for you if didn’t use these words. Play around with ways you use these words now, what substitutuions you might chose to make.

The argument for eliminating these 7 words is that it will shift your thinking from being at the mercy of forces outside yourself (your partner, your parents, traffic, the weather) to making a choice. When you use these 7 words, you rob yourself of choice and lose the intentional force with which you steer yourself forward in this world.

Eliminating the 7 words also brings in an element of positivity to your thought process and your speech. Instead of “having to do something”, try making the statement “I am going to do something.” Even though you may feel as though you don’t have a choice about whether or not to do the thing, speaking as though you do, changes the chemistry in your brain, invoking choice and intention rather than obligation.

For many, many situations in life, we do have choice, only we do not acknowledge it. No one forces me to sit down and write this blog post. I could say “I must write this post today” and feel oppressed and obligated. Instead I choose to say, “I am going to write a blog post today.” I cannot tell you how much better I feel when I allow myself to decide instead of feeling as though something else is deciding me. Think about your own situation. In what ways is something else deciding you?

A caveat on the word need. This word is not always used to replace choicefulness. i.e. “I need to go to the bathroom!” or “I need to take my medicine at the same time each day.” And, I still maintain that you can replace it with “I am going to use the bathroom now.” or simply, “I take my medicine at the same time each day.” The idea here is to bring some mindfulness to your speech. Pay attention to what you say and how you feel when you say it. If you use need, and still feel choiceful and intentional, by all means use it. And, I am guessing that when you replace the 7 words with intentional words, you will notice a difference. I know I did.

After my teacher invited me to eliminate the 7 words, I noticed some changes in myself. It took some time and practice, but when I began to say things like “I am going to/not going to” instead of “I should have …..” or “I better …” I felt more powerful and in control of my life. I felt kinder and more compassionate toward myself. The unexpected benefit of this was the spillover into other parts of my life. I had more love for others, too. Crazy, huh?

So what are the words to use to replace the 7 words? I have listed my suggestions for intentional and choiceful words below. Please feel free to add your own in comments below.

going to


will not

did not

able to

choose to

choose not to

If you are struggling with choicefulness and intention in your life or would like some help eliminating the 7 words from your vocabulary, shoot me an email or call for a free, 20-minute telephone consultation. 512.593.0583.

Peace, friends.



Life in poetry

This is one of my favorite poetry pieces. It is encouraging and forceful at the same time, and urges us to live life fully while reminding us that we are perfect… If you would like to find and explore your own wonder and perfection, call me. It’s a fantastic journey.


The Laughing Heart   by Charles Bukowski

your life is your life

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

be on the watch

there are ways out.

there is a light somewhere.

it may not be much light but

it beats the darkness.

be on the watch.

the gods will offer you chances.

know them.

take them.

you can’t beat death but

you can beat death in life, sometimes.

and the more often you learn to to do it,

the more light there will be.

your life is your life.

know it while you have it.

you are marvelous

and the gods wait to delight

in you.

Peace, friends.

Melanie Somerville, MA, LPC, 512-593-0583

Effort with ease: What to do when you don’t know what to do


When I am quiet and still, my mind is clear. When I move and speak and act with intention, I know what to do. I call this part of my life, effort with ease. I am working, it takes some concentration and exertion, and I am relaxed.

When I have many tasks tugging on my consciousness, clamoring for my attention, demanding completion, I become overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. I can’t focus. I am foggy and sometimes feel as though I were going around in circles. Does this ever happen to you?

It may seem counterintuitive, but slowing down actually helps us go faster. Here are some suggestions for developing effort with ease:

1. Write down your priorities, because when there are so many things clamoring for your attention, it is easy to forget. Your list might be only what you want to accomplish this morning, or today. Give yourself permission to set the parameters. Seeing the words in a list helps to keep your attention. Plus, it feels good to cross or check off the completed item.

2. Focus on mindfulness. Keep your mind on the task at hand, putting your entire concentration on this project. Train yourself not to think about what to buy your lover for Valentine’s, or that you need to check the balance in your bank account.

3. If you are working on something particularly challenging, or big, set a timer. Decide how long you want to engage your effort with ease and get to work. Take a break (decide in advance how long and set the timer for this, too), then get back to it.

4. If you find your mind wandering, stop. Close your eyes. Take three deep, slow breaths, keeping your attention on the breath, nothing else. Open your eyes and continue with the task.

5. No multitasking here! Recent research on the brain has shown that the human brain does not function well at multiple tasks (Re: texting and driving). One thing at a time.

6. Remember that tomorrow is another day. Rewrite your priorities, or pick up where you left off. AND be kind to yourself if you didn’t accomplish everything on your list.


If you would like to explore mindfulness, priorities or effort with ease, give me a buzz, or shoot me an email. 512-593-0583.

Peace, friends.


The mirror


What I react to is a mirror to my own learning. If I pay attention, my reaction gives me the opportunity to see myself.

Ram Dass, a wise spiritual teacher from whose writings I’ve learned so much, tell us, “What you see in another being is a projection of your own reality.” This means I see my impatience, my reactivity, as well as my kindness and compassion reflected in others. This is a heavy idea to grasp. It took me some time. It is easier to identify the positive aspects of myself in those I love. For example, my lover’s tenderness toward me is a reflection of the tenderness I extend to him and others. My mother’s generosity is my own desire to be seen in this way.

Woman Holding Blank Frame

Where I have trouble is in looking at the not so attractive parts of myself. The neighbor who pisses me off because he speaks so cruelly to his dog. The driver who pulls in front of me during rush hour. I am not cruel! I am a conscientious driver! Well, maybe not always.

The incidents I react to are potential lessons about myself. We all have parts of ourselves that we cannot or will not look at. These parts stay in the shadows, often forever. When we have the courage to look at the dark parts of our personalities, we can integrate them into the lighter parts. This may sound paradoxical. Why would I want to look at my negative qualities? Of what benefit is it?


I believe we are more complete and satisfactory humans being when we can integrate, or bring together, all sides of ourselves, including the opposites (Example: my generous self and my stingy self). Another way to look at opposites is to consider nature. We would not know dark without light, day without night, sunlight without rain. It is the contrast that makes each meaningful. When I acknowledge my dark side, it makes my bright side so much more precious. Most of us are socially conditioned not to look at, never mind accept, the dark parts of ourselves. Yet they are parts of us. And as we know ourselves completely, we have the power to change that which does not work. By noticing the dark, we let the light shine brighter.

If you want some guidance looking in the mirror and exploring all the parts of yourself, give me a call or write me an email.

Peace, friends.

Melanie Somerville, MA, LPC

Running from a different place



Recently a colleague made an insightful suggestion about my running practice. She suggested I run to deflect feeling emotional pain. My first instinct was to strongly deny her suggestion. I am a highly trained, self-aware person, familiar with exploring all facets of my personality! Surely, I know myself best!

And then I stopped that movie. Huh. How might I be using something so seemingly healthy as an avoidance tactic? And yet, the more I sat with this uncomfortable feeling, the more I realized she might just be correct. Especially as I looked at how my running has evolved over the years.

Instead of being a runner who wants to improve her pace, I am all about distance and logging the miles. I realized there was a correlation between the emotionally turbulent periods of my life and the number of miles I was running during these times. The greater my emotional distress, the more miles I tended to run. 

This is a good example of how something can have both positive and negative qualities. We are so conditioned in our Western culture to be dualistic. We think in terms of either/or. Running (insert any other word here) is either good for you or bad for you, depending upon your perspective.


What if we looked at it from a different place? What if the things we think of as all good, or all bad, might actually be a bit of both? My running was good for me at the time, because it provided a healthy outlet for emotions I did not understand, could not, or would not express. Running was perhaps bad also, for precisely that reason. I deflected emotional pain by enduring physical pain. Emotional pain meted out in every pounding, pre-dawn 10-mile run.

 So the next time you want to categorize something as either “bad” or “good,”  think again. Could it be both?

I’d love to hear about your experience of looking at things from a different place. How has this worked (or not) for you? Send me an email or comment below.

Peace, friends.

Say less

sayI have been thinking lately about the words I speak. Do I say too many? Do I say the truth? Do I say enough? Why am I saying this? I also pay attention to the effect my words have on others, and to the outcome I desire when I say my words. Sometimes I don’t know the effect my words have on others, but if I slow down, I can consider my motivation for what I say.


Sometimes I want validation for the feelings I am experiencing. Sometimes I want attention from the person I am speaking to. Sometimes my words ask someone to agree with me. So all of these reasons have an expectation attached to the speaking.

I am experimenting with slowing down, considering my words carefully, and saying less. As I say less, I have time to consider my motivation for the words I speak, and to drop my expectation about the other person’s response.



A few years ago, I took a series of meditation courses in the Shambhala tradition. A wise teacher once asked we students to consider the following about our speech:

Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?

These are the suggestions I am taking on again before I speak. I am interested to know about how you might want to say less. Comment below or send me an email.

Peace, friends.

36 questions to love


zly0fp0p7hlfhoarjdizLast Sunday, in the New York Times, the column Modern Love addressed the issue of falling in love. Is it something that happens to us, or something we choose? I want to write about this, because  the topic captured my interest, and apparently, many other’s as well.

I’ve made clear in previous posts, that I believe love is a choice. And I write from the context of people already in my life, who sometimes challenge my willingness to love them completely. In this sense, love for me, is a choice. I choose love, despite the discomfort and the unknown.


But how does love happen? One aspect of falling in love involves developing interpersonal closeness by revealing deeper and generally less apparent parts of ourselves. This is also known as intimacy. When we feel safe revealing our true self, and that true self is met with compassion and reciprocal revelations (meaning the other person shares their shit too), intimacy and trust can develop.

Psychologist Arthur Aron wanted to know if two strangers could generate interpersonal closeness by answering 36 questions, each designed to reveal more and more about the participant’s innermost feelings. The interest in these questions has been so great, that there is now an app, complete with the 36 questions and directions for conducting your own experiment.

Do you think it’s possible for two strangers to fall in love after answering 36 questions? How much intimacy is there in your own close relationships? Would you be interested in answering the 36 questions with your current or long term partner? I know I am.


I would enjoy hearing about any experimenting you do with the 36 questions. Comment below or shoot me an email.

Peace, friends.


Fear and the Fertile Void


When I was five years old, a neighborhood dog escaped his yard and chased me, jumping up on me, in what was probably a friendly attempt to play. I was traumatized and fearful of dogs for many years after this.

Today, during my early morning run, a dog out of his yard, barked at me and moved in my direction. I looked at him and said, “good morning!” At that moment, his owner called and the dog turned away from me. This incident reminded me of how far I’ve come in my reaction to unknown dogs (and unknown incidents).


Two thoughts came to mind about this. First, early childhood events profoundly affect how we make contact with the world in adulthood. These events are usually buried deep in our subconscious and often do not surface until we intentionally work on self-awareness. Second, that my fear of dogs was a metaphor for many fears. The root of my fear was not the dog itself, but what might happen with the dog.

In Gestalt therapy, we call that place of uncertainty, between the known and unknown, the fertile void. It is the chasm we cross when we leave behind what is certain and safe, but perhaps not always productive. The fertile void is the creative possibility for something different and potentially powerful.


It is the willingness not to know. The dog might bite me, yes. He might be friendly and lick my hand. Crossing the chasm is done with choicefulness and the understanding that risk is involved. I don’t want anyone to be stricken with rabies because they reached out to an unknown dog who bit them!

And, I am advocating a visit to the chasm. To entertain the possibilities of the unknown. To be okay with not knowing.

Peace, friends.