Do you know someone who resorts to the silent treatment whenever they are upset? They refuse to discuss what is troubling them, but instead they glower in silence and hang over you like a grey raincloud. There is an old saying, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,’ but it is actually better to say not-nice things rather than subjecting a friend or family member to the silent treatment for days!
Dishing out the silent treatment to someone who has hurt you is a passive-aggressive form of behaviour. It is hurtful. Being subjected to the silent treatment as a friend, son, daughter or spouse can make you feel worthless, especially if you are exposed to this treatment on an ongoing basis. It is a form of emotional abuse.
Cooling down and the silent treatment are different
Counsellor Lisa Concepcion says people often go silent when they are angry and don’t want to talk. They need the time to process their thoughts and pull themselves together. But other people use silence as a way to manipulate people. It is a means of inflicting pain. The silent treatment should not be confused with taking time to cool down after a fight. It is okay to tell someone you need time to think but you will come back to them when calm. However it is not okay to subject someone to silence for an extended period of time.
Research has shown that the act of ignoring someone activates the same area of the brain that is affected by physical abuse. Also the best predicator of whether a relationship will last, is not whether people fight, but how they fight. I always recommend to fight fair, and the silent treatment is never fair.
Silence is punitive
A professor of Psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, Kipling Williams, who studies ostracism says, ‘Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realise the emotional or physical harm that is being done.’ He says the silent treatment activates the anterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain that detects physical pain. The initial pain is the same, regardless of whether the exclusion is by strangers, close friends or enemies. Often a person will resort to using the silent treatment when they feel they have been pressured with requests, criticism or complaints.
Prof Paul Schrodt from Texas Christian University says that when two people get locked in a demand-withdraw pattern, the damage is both emotional and physiological and can include anxiety and aggression. Silence is sometimes called the weapon of choice because it is so powerful and easy to get away with.
So how do you respond to the silent treatment?
I’m afraid that if you have a friend or partner who regularly subjects you to the silent treatment then you need to reassess the relationship, because it is not a healthy relationship. You may need to break away from this person or start counselling as they are being hurtful to you on a regular basis.
If it is a family member, for example a sibling or parent then you are going to have to develop some coping mechanisms.
Don’t take the silence personally and work on your self-confidence.
The silent treatment is meant to make you feel worthless and unloved. This person wants you to feel belittled and come grovelling back so that you are under their control. Again, I say it’s a form of manipulation, but if you believe in yourself then you will see this person as the manipulator they are.
Try to ignore their behaviour. Put on a cheerful demeanour and continue to speak to them as though you don’t even notice they have gone silent. The family member being silent will find this frustrating.
Do not plead with them to speak to you
I’m sorry but people use silence to feel powerful and gain the upper hand. If you plead with them to speak to you, you are giving them what they want. They want to feel like you can’t live without them and they can control you. I know that getting the silent treatment is frustrating and annoying, but still it is best to pretend that it isn’t bothering you. If the person giving you the silent treatment is also a narcissist, they will love it when you beg for them to speak. If anything, it will encourage them to stay silent.
Do not argue with the silent person
If you continue the argument with the person who is resorting to silence you will get nowhere. It will be a one-sided argument that you will lose! The person who uses silence is usually very angry. They also lack the skills to process and deal with their anger and then effectively communicate why they were angry to you. Remember they are the one with the problem. Refrain from arguing.
Do not say you are sorry if you are not
Do not offer an apology to the silent party as a way of entreating them to end the silence. Come on, you would only be rewarding them for the bad behaviour. It also negates all the points you made prior to them retreating into silence. Stay strong in yourself.
Of course if you have done something dreadful you should apologise. If you have done something truly offensive, you may not be on the receiving end of silence but rather the relationship has ended. Offer one apology and then retreat. Do not pester someone with apologies. It is their choice as to whether or not they are prepared to forgive you.
If you are the subject of silent treatment from another person, then often you are left with only one option. Go away and focus on making yourself happy.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.