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14. How to manage "the silent treatment"

Written by Rachel Green, Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute, accredited user of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso-Emotional-Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and international leader in emotional intelligence coaching.

Being on the receiving end of silence can be difficult and can leave people feeling frustrated, awkward or even helpless.

I have just been running an emotional intelligence master-class on managing the emotions that arise when giving feedback. Part of our discussions centred on how to manage people who give you the silent treatment in response to your feedback. 

Of course, the silent treatment doesn't just happen at work but at home too.

We have probably all experienced people who are sulking or silent. They have a black cloud hanging over them, don't they? They don't say anything but you can sense that all is not well.

Maybe they give black looks. Maybe they refuse to co-operate. Maybe they sit there in a sullen silence. You may feel as though they are being deliberately difficult.

It's tough being on the receiving end, especially if they don't have the emotional intelligence or communication skills to get over their silence.

Perhaps you decide to approach them and ask, "Is there anything wrong?" and they say, "No" with complete disdain, as if you are stupid for not knowing.

Or maybe you say, "Is there something I have done to upset you?" and they say, "You should know!" There clearly is something wrong but you don't know what. The silent treatment is not easy to cope with!

Here are five top tips on emotionally intelligent ways to deal with silent treatment.

Dealing with silence tip 1: Be comfortable with silence

We spoke a lot in the emotions of feedback workshops about learning to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions. It is a challenging concept and requires a high level of emotional intelligence and yet it can be invaluable. Many of us run away from or avoid uncomfortable emotions instead of learning to sit them out.

Thus, if you are giving feedback and someone goes quiet on you at work, be able to sit with the silence comfortably. Do the same at home. By becoming comfortable with silence you may feel less manipulated by it.

Once you are comfortable with it you will also be less likely to feel the need to fill the silence. You will be less likely to interrogate people about why they are silent. You will be more able to wait until they feel able to speak again. This can be very helpful and emotionally intelligent!

Waiting out silence is an old strategy in sales. Sales people are trained to wait for the customer to speak. It is also a strategy of the media when interviewing politicians; if the interviewer leaves silence the politician is more likely to blab and fill it.

Be comfortable with silence. It's an important emotional intelligence skill. Let the silent person fill the silence rather than yourself.

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Dealing with silence tip 2: Know why people go silent

There is not just one reason why people go silent and it is important to differentiate between the different types of silence.

Sometimes the silent treatment is because people are too frightened to speak out and fear the repercussions of expressing a grievance. Sometimes they have gone silent because they don't have the skill to talk about what is bothering them. Sometimes the silence is a reflection of the fact that they are trying to sort something out in their own minds and to work out what is bothering them before talking about it.

Sometimes they wish for revenge and punishment and going silent on you is their way of getting back at you or the organisation. It's not very emotionally intelligent but it happens anyway! Sometimes they are miles away in their own space and time.

Do not assume you know why they are silent, but pay attention to trying to work it out. The silent treatment is not always what it seems.

In the feedback situation, for example, it may not be because they are trying to get back at you. They may have gone silent because they are angry or hurt and do not like conflict. They may feel too scared to speak up and then get stuck in silence and don't know how to get out of it.

Work out what is underneath the silence. Emotional intelligence involves understanding others' emotions. It's the third dimension on the Genos emotional intelligence model.

Dealing with silence tip 3. Gently comment on what you've noticed

Challenging someone with, "Is there something wrong?" most often, in my experience, produces the response, "No". When they hear this question, they may be thinking to themselves, "It's obvious, isn't it?" or "I wish they'd mention the problem".

Instead, try approaching the issue more gently, and in a factual way, e.g. "I've noticed you have been quiet for the last three hours, what is going on for you?" or "At the last two staff meetings I noticed you haven't said anything, may I talk to you about it?" Or, "I notice you have become quiet; what are your thoughts?"

Using the phrase "I notice" can be a gentle way to approach people who are giving you the silent treatment.

Want to know how well developed or lacking your emotional intelligence is? Have the MSCEIT conducted and receive coaching on your results. Click here to find out more: www.theeiinstitute.com/professional-tests/mayer-salovey-caruso-emotional-intelligence-test-msceit.htm

Dealing with silence tip 4: Ask

When you are being given the silent treatment don't assume you know what people need. For example, don't automatically assume people want an arm around their shoulders, or cups of tea or to talk about things.

Instead, ask, "How can I help?" or "What do you need?" If you get no response, some gentle suggestions may help them to respond, e.g. "Would you like me to leave you on your own, give you a hug or go outside with you so we can talk about it." This is different from saying, "Here have a cup of tea". Do not trap them into accepting something or expecting them to come up with ideas on their own.

Also don't give advice or solve their problems unless they ask you to. This may be difficult for you especially if you are feeling irritated, uncomfortable or impatient. Managing your own emotions is another important aspect of emotional intelligence and is essential when giving feedback.

Dealing with silence tip 5: If the other person says something, ACCEPT it

If people who are silent break their silence and say something, accept it. Don't judge, don’t tell people what to do, don't tell them to stop feeling like that, don't tell them they need to change, don't fire questions at them and don't argue. If they say something, accept it.

For example, if they say, "I am so worried about Abi" accept it by saying something like, "So Abi being off sick is getting you down?" or "Abi being off sick is worrying you?". This is instead of saying, "You know she is going to be alright", or "Silly thing" or "You should go and ask her how she is" or "Oh, is that all", or "Why on earth are you worried about her?".

Similarly, accept what is said when the issues arise in response to feedback. If people break their silence and say, "It's not my fault, it's the fault of the organisation and the poor management systems we have in place", don't disagree; simply listen. Don't dismiss by saying, "Nonsense, no one else has complained" or "What's wrong; can't you handle the workload?". Instead accept what is said and don't accuse them of being in denial.

Appreciate and accept that they have come out of silence and started talking again and gently explore what they say.

By accepting people's comments you help them to no longer fear speaking out and are dealing with the silence in a way that will help it dissolve. This is emotional intelligence in action in the workplace!

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