Using the Silent Treatment: Why It Should Be Part of Your Conflict Resolution Tactical Tool Kit

I was about eight years old when my best friend suddenly stopped talking to me. I didn’t know why and I worried about it for days. I asked her to explain and she turned her face without answering. I wrote her a note but she let it drop off her desk onto the floor without a second thought. I eventually gave up and decided to find a new best friend. I never found out the reason for the cold shoulder but still remember the rejection I felt.

It seems childish to use the silent treatment. Surely, it would be better to communicate openly (as I have been writing about since I started this blog) and assertively about perceptions, needs and potential creative solutions?

What is the Silent Treatment?

The silent treatment is a form of non-verbal communication. You can usually tell that something is “off” by a person’s body language, a sudden lack of eye contact and a cold wall of silence. It feels like something has happened to make them no longer want to talk to you. The intention behind it is to punish you and exert control over your emotional reactions. Somebody giving you the silent treatment could feel empowered by your confusion or they may only be able to respond is a non-assertive way by avoiding confrontation.

The Silent Treatment vs. Not Responding

Choosing not to respond is an active way of dealing with conflict. It’s an option you could take after giving careful thought to your conflict considerations and whether you will be negatively affected by the consequences.

These could include:

  • Losing your relationship with the other person;
  • Receiving an emotional or aggressive reaction;
  • The other person taking more damaging steps to get a response from you.

Not responding could be interpreted by your opponent as a sign of disrespect, of inferiority or an insult which is why you could expect the consequences above. There are good reasons not to respond and when used as a well-thought out strategy, it could result in positive steps that lead to conflict resolution. Remember, conflict resolution could also mean that the other person gets fed up with their futile attempts to get a response from you and gives up.

This is what I mean by the silent treatment. Not the childish, game-playing intended to make you squirm or an inability to talk constructively about the underlying problem between you.

When You Shouldn’t Respond

The only real reason you shouldn’t respond to conflict is when it will not lead to anything constructive. In fact, it could make it worse.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Somebody is insulting you, threatening you with violence or aggression or not particularly expressing how they see the conflict;
  • You believe that there will be no legal consequences. If a person is claiming money from you, the claim is so small, it’s unlikely that they will incur the legal costs of pursuing it in court;
  • You no longer value the relationship with the person, you want it to end or it wasn’t ever important;
  • You’ll waste time, money, effort and resource on it with no real benefit.

Conflict is not black and white and whilst it doesn’t follow a set pattern, it does follow certain stages. You may wish not to respond at a certain stage of a conflict. The best example of this is when an offer to settle is made before starting legal proceedings but it is so low that you consider it an insult.

If you believe you have a strong case and that the response to your genuine attempt to settle is not being taken seriously then there may be no benefit in continuing discussions with a party who is not ready to settle. In other words, the conflict is not yet “ripe” for settlement and you need to focus instead on creating a good reason for the other side to see it as a good option. Starting legal proceedings, instructing solicitors or experts is often done for that purpose.

Words of Warning

If you are considering using this as part of your conflict resolution strategy, remember the potential pitfalls. Ideally, it should be used when you aren’t interested in a relationship with the opposing party, there are no damaging consequences for you or you are strong enough to absorb any negative impact.

This tactic was used against me some years ago when I was requesting compensation for a delayed flight from an airline. After three months of sending emails and formal letters which went ignored, I eventually issued legal proceedings. This was the only way I could get a response which led to a settlement being agreed.

The airline probably reasoned that most customers would eventually give up. Or perhaps that they were not going to be financially impacted by one unhappy customer. They also had a large legal department and enough money to fund litigation, unlike most customers.

 This was their conflict resolution strategy as this major airline had hundreds of customers with whom they were only briefly in a relationship. Why bother spending money, time and effort on individuals who aren’t showing any real intention of giving them a run for their money?

This makes business sense. But if you are not in that position of strength, only use this tactic if giving a response will make the conflict worse or result in no benefit whatsoever.

What do you think about this? As always, let me know!


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