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15. Managing staff's hostile silence

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.

There are many types of silence. The blissful, relaxing peace of sitting in the bush by a still forest pool is one. 

The quiet while a person is thinking about how to answer a question, is another one. 

The hostility of a punishing silence from a person is quite different again, and can be very difficult to handle and tug at people's emotions.

Let's consider how to cope with the hardest one of these: the hostile silence.

If people are giving you the cold shoulder or have clammed up and gone silent on you, it can be very uncomfortable and awkward to deal with.

Yet there could be many things going on.

Whatever it is, the silent person may be finding it hard to speak out and may not feel safe in doing so.

Why does this happen? There can be many reasons, and they may differ from one silent person to the next. However, when some people grew up they learnt to only voice their displeasure by silent withdrawal, because more open displays of displeasure were punished. They could have learnt to fall silent as a way of managing their environment and their feelings.

Here are 7 tips on managing people who go silent.

I cannot guarantee they will work with everyone, as each person and situation is different. However, I have certainly found them helpful.

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Emotional intelligence tip 1: Develop a safe environment

Prevent silence by developing a safe environment. Silence can occur when a person does not feel it is safe to speak out. Create an environment that invites participation and in which people feel comfortable to talk.

This means an environment where people can talk, be listened to and understood - free of judgement, accusation, blame, belittling, derision or sarcasm. This may reduce the times people feel they need to be silent.

Emotional intelligence tip 2: Listen

Prevent silence by LISTENING and not jumping in. It is  so easy to be impatient and want to respond too quickly or to try to hurry the person along. Don't do this.

Pause before responding.

Then respond by feeding back what you have understood.

Listen rather than offering advice, solving the problem for them, intellectualising, ridiculing, disagreeing, pacifying, relating similar stories ... and so on.

Simply be there with them. This will make it feel safer so silence is not necessary.

This means of course, that you need to be able to stay calm and at ease. Otherwise the person will pick up your frustrations and may retreat even further.

Emotional intelligence tip 3: Talk about what happens

When you are getting along talk about what happens.

Work out two strategies. Firstly, what you can do to help to stop silence from happening and secondly, ways that help dissolve silence when it does happen.

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Emotional intelligence tip 4: Provide three options

When offering help or support give them options to choose from rather than only making one suggestion.

For example, "Would you like me to leave you in peace, bring you a cup of tea or give you a hug?"

This is different from saying, "Here have a cup of tea". Don't trap them into accepting something. Gentle suggestions can help them to respond.

Emotional intelligence tip 5: Go Slowly

Allow quiet between the two of you, pause before responding, reflect, go closer in stages, not all at once.

Don't rush to fill their silence; respect their need for space by pausing.

Emotional intelligence tip 6: Speak Gently

Speak with authentic kindness. Have a softened, pleasant tone of voice, a clear voice, an easy rate of speech - not harsh, tense, whiny or fast.

Sound quiet, calm and patient and genuine.

Emotional intelligence tip 7: Don't push for a response

If they don't say much in response to you, don't hound them for an explanation; if you do they may retreat even more. Be sympathetic.

In a kindly, understanding, easy way be on their side and interested in what is going on. Demonstrate an attitude of wanting to listen to them. Put aside your own issues for now.

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