I have always wondered what motivates people to use the “silent treatment”. You know, the phenomenon where a person decides to “punish” another person who purportedly wronged them by being verbally non -responsive. Only, the person in question typically has no idea that they in fact did anything wrong! This seems to be a strategy that people tend to use in romantic relationships. The person on the receiving end of the silent treatment often asks, “Honey, did I do something wrong? If so, what was it?” The person withholding their voice is thinking “you know what you did; I shouldn’t have to tell you!” or “I’m sure you’ll figure it out” or something to that effect. Strangely enough, some people pride themselves on being able to apply the silent treatment for days or weeks. And maybe they get some type of thrill seeing their partner squirm as they try to figure out how they got into trouble. I’m not sure how the initiator of this strategy decides to end the silent treatment and grace their partner with their voice. But from my viewpoint, it seems to takes an awful lot of energy and time to remember you are supposed to be mad and ignoring someone.
Believe it or not, I have been on the receiving end of the silent treatment, but it was in the workplace! And it was twice at the same site but with different coworkers! This was early in my professional career, so this was at least 20 years ago. To this day, I have no idea what caused it! On both occasions, once I figured that my co-worker was no longer speaking to me, I briefly wrestled with what I could have said or done to upset her. Since I could not figure this out, I approached her on two occasions but was assured each time that nothing was wrong. My response (in my head) was “Alrighty then! I’m not asking anymore. If you’re not woman enough to tell me, it’s not my problem!” I noticed that in passing her in the halls, she had to “fix her face”, so as not to show any emotion. At first, I was quite alarmed that someone would act this way towards me. But then I got rather amused at how she had to remember that she was not supposed to be speaking to me, even though I would greet her in my usual manner. Eventually, I got bored and chose to focus on other pressing matters. After awhile, she resumed speaking to me, but the relationship was never the same.
I thought I would share some insight to those inclined to use this strategy when a coworker says or does something that displeases or offends you. Newsflash!! The silent treatment does not work! Particularly if the object of your treatment is like me and never figures out what happened in the first place! Like me, they quickly move on with their lives, while you’re still harboring that negative energy. Consider the impact of the silent treatment on you, the initiator: you have to remember to be mad and not give in and look happy to see the person; you have to put in some effort to put on a mean or indifferent face or change your attitude whenever that person walks by. Is it really worth it? Why not have a discussion about what’s bothering you? Not sure how? Consider these steps:
- Acknowledge the negative emotions. The first step is admitting (to yourself) that someone hurt your feelings. Sounds easy enough, but often we stop at the obvious feeling of anger and fail to look beneath the anger to see the hurt. For example, let’s say a co-worker makes a joke about your seemingly lax attitude at work. Once you recognize and understand that you feel hurt because of the implication that you don’t take your work seriously, you are now ready to face them.
- Consider all possible outcomes of confronting your peer. Now forget your initial response and think about a way that will result in a healthy outcome! Our first inclination may be to ridicule or humiliate the person by having this conversation in front of others. It’s important to get past our feelings for a moment and think about a more effective outcome, such as “this may be a good opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding. Maybe my perception of the event was not the intended effect”. Just maybe, there’s another explanation for why the co-worker made the statement.
- Address the source calmly and without emotion. Ask your co-worker if you could speak with her for a few moments to clarify something. Then, clearly state the facts without using a blaming or otherwise negative tone. For ex., “Last week, during lunch with Stacey and Marcus, you stated that whenever you see me, regardless of whether we’re in crisis mode or not, I’m always telling jokes and have this ‘happy-go-lucky’ manner”.
- Identify the impact on you (i.e., how the words made you feel). For example, “Liz, your comment that I’m always joking and playful – no matter when you see me – upset me. It sounded as though you don’t think I take my work seriously and I’m concerned that others hearing you say that might come to the same conclusion.”
- Listen without judgment. (Your coworker’s response may surprise you!) Your co-worker could respond with shock and awe because she believed she was giving you a compliment. During this conversation, she indicated that she views your upbeat attitude as positive and likes the fact that you use humor to defuse tense situations so that people can relax. Granted, this outcome is ideal. Maybe your co-worker was using an indirect way to tell you that sometimes the timing of your jokes are inappropriate or may be distracting, particularly during times of high stress. But now that you have taken the lead to having a conversation, you can get some clarity and the two of you may be able to come to a satisfactory understanding.
Keep in mind that confronting people may not always lead to the result you want. But by initiating the conversation and using the above tips, you are taking responsibility for your own responses and in many cases, preventing a situation from escalating.
Connecting the dots:
- What’s preventing you from changing your strategy of giving others the silent treatment and having that conversation?
- What’s one step you can take towards changing your strategy
- What can you gain by being more open and direct about your feelings?