What Do You Do When A Co-Worker Won’t Speak To You?

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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?

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21 Responses to “What Do You Do When A Co-Worker Won’t Speak To You?”

    • Dr. Leslie

      So happy to hear it Cathy! Thank you for your response. Keep seeking and He will continue to lead you!
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
  1. Sarah

    I have tried talking to my coworker who has been giving me the silent treatment off and on for ~2months, and at first she lashed out at me, telling me she would only talk to me about work related issues. I pointed out that this was a work related issue dealing with her and I. After that all I got was silence. I said, “I don’t understand why you can not just tell me what has made you so angry, so we can talk about it.” More silence. I told her i would try to stay out of her way but there are many times when it is just the two of us. I find this behavior to be so juvenile but am at a loss of how to deal w/ it.

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Hi Sarah,
      I suspect your situation has changed and hopefully resolved by now. But generally speaking, when co-workers refuse to talk and it has a negative impact on your ability to do your work, the situation often calls for some type of mediator – often the supervisor. My preference is always to attempt to initiate a dialogue first as you did. But when they choose not to engage with you in a civil manner, they leave you with little options. The reality is many people do not manage difficult situations well, even when approached calmly and without judgment. I appreciate your comments.
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
    • MeMe

      I had a co-worker who would not speak to me for two months!! The reason seemed to be because I checked her bad behavior, she would constantly make negative remarks about me in front of others or negative comments about my work, etc… in front of co workers, I said to her ” I don’t appreciate these comments you are making about me and my work and I would appreciate it if you would stop, if you have something to say to me come and talk to me about it privately” well this seemed to take all the steam out of her since she must use this technique in works situations a lot and then didn’t know how to get her way anymore so she just stopped talking to me. at first it bothered me but then I realized it was kind of refreshing just to have peace and quiet, however when it came to work related info that I needed it was annoying and I did have to complain to her about that. she still would not talk to me so I told the boss that she was withholding important work related info from me, he spoke to her about it and she foolishly would still not talk so I would always ask her questions while the boss was standing in the room and she would still not answer!! so he saw that she was not following his instructions which made him kind of angry and he spoke to her again. finally she grudgingly would tell me things. we still work together but I will never feel the same way about her again.

      Reply
    • Lydia P Ochoa

      Hello sometimes I am so stress out the I have to call sick. There is 4 coworkers that do not talk to me. They gave me the silent treatment. Any event related to work will not informed me. My supervisor is kind of taking their side. One time the supervisor asked me to do a job.after I expend 2hrs I went to document it In the computer when I find out the silent treatment co-worker did it already. I confronted my supervisor to get paid for my work. She reply o was who is going to by the chocolates now. She end up given credit work to the other person. That made me feel very upset. I need 3 more years to stay in this place until retired. The silent treatment of my co workers is getting it to me. Please help me in how to deal white it. I do not want to talk to them rather because when they do they are very unrespectfull sarcastic. The supervisor takes their side and ridicule me too on meetings not allowing me to talk or making jokes of what I said

      Reply
      • Dr. Leslie

        Hi Lydia,
        It’s clear that you’re in a frustrating and uncomfortable situation. You may find it helpful to consult with Human Resources in your company to explore your options, since you have not been able to receive any assistance or support from your supervisor.
        Take care,
        Dr. Leslie

        Reply
  2. Andrew

    I’m going through a similar situation at work right now. We were friends at work, but a month ago, she stopped talking to me. I asked her about it immediately, and she said nothing was wrong, so I assumed I had misread her. Now, it has been a month, and the person is making very awkward faces at me whenever we pass each other, in addition to not talking or responding to emails. I’m becoming concerned this could have ramifications in the future. Is there anything else I can do?

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Hi Andrew,
      Thank you for your question. Workplace friendships can prove challenging, particularly when one of the parties withdraw. However, repairing a work friendship requires the consent and participation of both parties involved. Unless her actions are interfering with your work tasks, you may need to just follow her lead and respect her nonverbal request to keep your distance. Also understand that you may not get the closure you desire. If her nonresponsiveness to you negatively impacts your work, in that she is withholding needed information, you may need to enlist the aid of a third party (i.e, supervisor) to mediate at least a civil working relationship.
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
  3. JohnDoe

    Yes, it does work, because then they start going to others trying to find out what it is they did to you and they’ll always wonder. Lol Yes, it does indeed work! And no, weak minded people don’t go on with their lives.

    Reply
  4. Tom

    It can be annoying. At times a coworker gets yelled at, and then they decide to go poof gone. The worst thing you can do is yell at them some more. This will only push them further away. Going to management will do the same thing. Try to work it out in an appropriate manner. Many people look on yelling at them as unprofessional. Once you told the coworker your side of the story, the ball is in their court. If they still don’t respond, then poooh on them.

    Reply
  5. Lisa

    PRECIOUSLY A COWORKER AND I HAD A GOOD WORKI G RELATIONSHIP BUT THEY WERE ALWAYS TRYING TO CONTROL ME AND BOSS ME AROUND WHICH I CONFRONTED THEM ABOUT IT BEFORE. ONE DAY I WAS In the new boss that she has known from another office…anyway and she asked me quite rudely why I was in there. I was very upset and had reached my last nerve with her behavior so I reported it to the boss. To make a long story short things did not go well I was called petty by the new boss that she has known and he made comments that in no way reflected her bossy and rude behavior…anyway she doesnt talk to me anymore. But I have remained in good spirits and I just ignore her.

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      I appreciate your comments, Lisa. Trying to navigate these work relationships can be difficult. Kudos to you for remaining in “good spirits”!

      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
  6. Carol

    I’ve work with a woman who has refused to speak to me for the last six years, except when circumstances in her life become so overwhelming that she absolutely HAS to talk about herself, at which point she begins to talk–always and only–about herself. She is doing this to two other people who work here, too. One of those people has worked here (this is not a typo) 45 years and one has worked here 18 years. She’s been here 30+ years, so the length of time she has treated those two to silence far exceeds the freeze she shows me and it’s a comfort to me to know I’m not alone. Unfortunately for me, I have the same job duties she does, while they are only peripherally in contact with her. I envy them that.

    By their reports, she used to “be a different person,” treating them in a normal manner until who-knows-what happened with each of them and she decided to put on the Big Freeze. Neither of says they know what they might have done to “cause” the problem.

    I wouldn’t even consider trying to “work it out” with her. I am an only child and I was exposed to the silent treatment when my mom was angry. My dad seldom spoke much, so I always found myself descending into complete aloneness if my mom was mad. And I would remain there until I groveled, desperate to make her talk to me again. Consequently, I hold anyone who uses the tactic in bitter contempt.

    The loss of communication with a person, and the consequent friendly feeling, would have to constitute a very great loss to me before I’d ever attempt to remedy a situation they were trying to control with silence for even a day, let alone years and decades. This woman’s silence costs me nothing, aside from inspiring my anger at her immaturity and her willingness to let work suffer rather than get over herself. I also can’t help but notice that she behaves in a sunshine-and-happy-bunnies manner with our mutual supervisor, who wants more than anything NOT to have to deal with her attitude problem (which is common knowledge), so it’s plainly obvious that she has NO trouble “remembering who she’s mad at.”

    I’m retiring in a little over two months from now. Let her mental health issues impact other people, I’ll be gone!

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Carol, you presented a good, yet sad, example of how a person’s personal difficulties negatively affects their work relationships. Recognizing when it is truly the other person with the challenge often helps me not to take it personally. Looks like you’ve done just that! Don’t waste any more of your time and energy being angry at her shortcomings. Congratulations on your upcoming retirement! Enjoy!
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
  7. Janice Garson

    I showed sincere compassion for a staff members daughter who had a black eye and a bruised nose. Later that day the Vice Principal asked me about what was said so I told her, I showed concern for this child. Now the mother of the child that works at the same school as me has been harassing me about the child’s and mine’s conversation. I told her it was resolved by the Vice Principal and there’s nothing more to discuss. The mother called my boss, she showed up at the school. Told me I had to talk to the mother. I feel this has been resolved and want to move on. What I do not like is the mother did not follow protocol and now I am forced to deal with this issues again.

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Thank you for sharing your experiences Janice. This sounds like a complex matter. Despite your apprehension, which is understandable, it may prove helpful to meet with this mother with a neutral third party just to hear her concerns. This does not have to be a long conversation. I understand your frustration that she did not follow protocol. However, her persistence in wanting to speak with you suggests she may need something more from you to help her with closure. Even if you cannot provide her with answers, taking time to listen compassionately may be all that’s needed to end this matter. Perhaps viewing this from her perspective might be helpful? I trust that you’ll be able to resolve this in a manner that proves satisfactory to all involved.
      Take good care!
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply
  8. Zoom

    Hi Dr. Leslie,

    Great post here, I have had to give a coworker the silent treatment because I don’t know what else to do, she recently went to the Boss about me over some innocent emails (that she replied back too) and I suspect that this was just revenge for when I went to HR to get some advice, I never mentioned any names to HR but they went digging.

    I have been trying to communicate with this Girl for months to clear up some misunderstandings and for us to be able to be civil to each other, I have no idea why she wouldn’t talk to me about issues that needed to be addressed (her gossiping about me and telling other coworkers lies about me), we used to be good Friends but I stopped socializing with her months ago as I am married and it felt to me that she might have been getting the wrong idea about us, she even told my Boss that she no longer wants to be Friends and I am baffled as to why she couldn’t tell me that.

    She also told my Boss that she would be civil with me and greet me in the mornings, but she doesn’t at all.

    We have had communication issues for a while now and I have done my best to make amends, I have apologized for my behaviour and actions in the past and the odd thing is that she always seems to look at me and walks past my desk a lot during the day, so I am left wondering if she just did this for attention?, I feel that she plays a lot of mind games with me.

    I was told that I was bordering on harassment and even though I can’t see it, I respect my Boss and I felt that the best thing to do was keep quiet and keep my distance from her.

    I would love to her your advice on this matter.

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. From your response, it doesn’t appear that you initiated the silent treatment. It sounds like your boss has suggested you refrain from trying to make your co-worker communicate with you, and I agree. When people make it clear that they are not interested in meeting you halfway, or even being civil for the sake of work, and when they have rejected your efforts to make amends, then you have little recourse but to retreat. Focus your efforts elsewhere and direct your energies on nurturing positive relationships with other coworkers. When you stop showing that her actions bother you, she’ll hopefully move on to something else. It’s not necessary for you to be rude or less than civil. Remember, it takes two people to engage.

      Reply
  9. Brittani

    I recently had a falling out with a co-worker that I considered a friend. She and I went to movies dinner grabbed drinks after work together etc.. We are both dialysis technicians. She is in her 40’s, I Just turned 30. I will complete my RN nursing program in 6 months. I’m married with no children. She lives with her sister is single and has no plans to continue her education In the medical field. I will be her superior once I become a nurse. She has been acting cold towards me and making rude comments. One day she said something about my hair. I let her know I didn’t appreciate it. She got upset with me. When I pulled her aside to talk she was very upset even then over a week later. I told her that I was fond of her and have always enjoyed working with her and that I wanted to clear the air. She basically shut me down. I dont know what to do now. I feel as though this is going to continue to be an issue. That worries me.

    Reply
    • Dr. Leslie

      Hi Brittani. You’ve described a challenging situation. Although you didn’t indicate the nature of your dispute, I’m sure it only added to the strain of your relationship related to your pending promotion to a supervisory position over her. You’re correct that this change in work status can continue to impact your relationship. I won’t speculate about the many possible causes of the change in attitude by your co-worker. I commend you for attempting to share with her how much you valued the relationship and your desire to “clear the air”. Continue to be consistent and fair in your dealings with her without going out of your way or overlooking unprofessional behavior. It’s not uncommon for promotions to change relationships as often the one who is not promoted feels left behind. Many times, the one being promoted finds it difficult to find common ground and remain friends with the former peers, who are now reporting to them. These challenges can be overcome however, if everyone is committed to working as a team and focusing on mutual goals of serving others with the highest of standards. Thank you for sharing. All the best to you Brittani!
      Dr. Leslie

      Reply

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