Tag Archives: work relationships

Monday Morning Moment – the Not So Subtle Punishment of Silence

Photo Credit: Socrates, Status Mind

The silent treatment. Seems so juvenile, in a way, and yet it is used as a punishment in relationships, both personal and professional. We may be the ones doing it without even thinking that’s what it is. Here we go.

In the earliest years of our marriage, Dave and I would sometimes have a fight about something. At times, the conflict didn’t end well for me, anyway. Then, without really a goal to be vindictive or mean, I would just have nothing to say to him…for as many as three days. Oh, we would cover the normal conversation of life – schedules, kids, etc., but from my side, all matters of the heart were wrapped in silence. Punishing him with that silence. I don’t think he always noticed, but inside my own heart and head, it was brutal.

Fortunately for us both, I grew out of that. Now after a disagreement, it may take me a few minutes to shake off my frustration…but not days. Silent treatment in our marriage is over.

In a recent blog by Jan Riley (a dear friend of mine), she talked about the use of silence to “break a person down”. She writes below:

In his book Ostracism: The Power of Silence, psychologist Kipling Williams writes: “William James [father of American psychology] suggested that to be ‘cut dead’ and to go ‘unnoticed’ by others would be worse than the ‘most fiendish punishment.’ The silent treatment may well be the most frequently used method of cutting people dead.”

In his piece Ostracism, Dr. Williams introduced the topic with a further quote by Dr. James: “If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met “cut us dead,” and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.( James 1890/1950, pp. 293–94)

Ostracism – Kipling D. Williams – pdf

Psychologist Karen Young talks about silent treatment as

Photo Credit: Jaeda DeWalt

Silence is a very disorienting experience because you usually can’t discern what it means.  It can put you off balance.

Anyone who has ever experienced ostracism knows what it feels like and how debilitating it can be, even for a mature thinker.

Silent treatment can be intentional and manipulative, however it can also become a habit of “communication” – neglectful communication. Excluding someone from a conversation (at work or other association), not making eye contact, not speaking in casual encounters, not answering emails/texts, leaving a group member off a group email, not acknowledging someone’s input…and so it goes.

[Of course, all the above can happen innocently for the overloaded person, without intention. The dilemma is when we, over time, just let it keep happening because we can’t figure out how to fix it..or just aren’t inclined…to fix it.]

The curious thing about silent treatment, if you confront the person you sense is doing it, that person can always deny it…whereupon you feel like you’ve read the situation wrongly, you overreacted, etc. It is like a double punch.

So what does one do in regards to silent treatment? What are the counter-measures? I would love for you to share yours in the Comments because I am still sorting out what can affect change.

In a personal relationship, in a non-conflictive moment, you may talk together about what silence conveys. It may be that neither of you have an understanding of what’s going on with the other…because of the silence. Face-to-face communication most always helps with understanding each other better.

In a work situation, or other organizational affiliation that demands working together, systems can be put in place that facilitates engagement… team meetings, weekly email updates, some sort of regular internal communication process. Like with bullying prevention, a core value that speaks to the essential of regular, empowering communication can have impact.

A work or family culture that just accepts silence as a way of coping with stress or frustration can affect everyone in that culture. Identify the issues and do what you can to move them toward health.

One-on-one, there still may be little we can do to counter or improve a situation with such a someone – one who has made silence a pattern to control their encounters with others. We can definitely mark the experience, and check the pain. Then if there seems no way to improve the relationship, the best thing we can do is put our own boundaries around the experience…but not necessarily the person.

Photo Credit: Pikord, Michael Davis Lowery

[The above graphic was a chuckle, not a true work-around.]

We don’t want to respond to passive-aggressive behavior with the same sort of behavior. We may, however, have to acknowledge that for some people, it’s a deeply ingrained habit that could even have become unconscious.

When our daughter was 3 years old, she went through a season of not speaking to people. She would bury her face in my leg, or just turn her face/body away from the person. Then I tried to “excuse” her behavior with “she’s become shy lately.” The same friend above, Jan, who was also a parenting mentor for me, said outright: “That’s not being shy; that’s being rude.” Some of you may be put off by that, but I appreciated her being straight with me. From that day on, this mama worked with that 3-year-old on what ignoring and not speaking communicated and on how to be courteous and respectful. Now the lovely woman she has become is working on the same lessons with her little one.

Whatever your take is on this, hopefully you won’t default to perpetrating the silent treatment as your own pattern of controlling situations. Don’t do it yourself. Don’t be that person.

It helps me to realize that friends, family, and coworkers who use silent treatment didn’t get there overnight. There could have been an event, an altercation, a painful experience of their own that set them up for emotionally withdrawing and using silence as coping or as punishment. For some, like in our early years of marriage, silent treatment may be very situational. For others, it is borne out of habit – a habit of feeling no compulsion toward connecting with people they don’t value or whom they feel don’t value them. It is what it is.

In this day of social media and over-sharing, to put yourself out there and then be met with silence is a strange and sometimes painful experience. Fortunately, even that does not define us. Right? Right.

The Surprising Truth About the Silent Treatment – Karen Young

When We Use Silence As Punishment

The Silent Treatment: a Deadly Killer of Friendships – Noelle Rhodes

Workplace Wisdom – Dave’s Observation on Work (and other) Relationships – What You Think of Others Matters

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At first, you really liked working with this person. Then, bit by bit, he/she began wearing on you. He is always playing with his phone. Her solution to today’s problem is too labor-intensive. His email responses have become terse. She is late for your meeting. You think, maybe I was wrong about him. He is not the person I thought he was. Maybe, she’s the wrong person on the bus.

When a relationship begins to deteriorate at work (or home), you are wise to take steps to turn this around as quickly as possible. You could be in a work situation that has been difficult from the outset. It is still possible for you to make inroads in turning that relationship toward a more healthy or positive one. If not altogether, at least from your side. Consider an adage that has had a long and useful run in our family and work.

Your opinion of someone approximates their opinion of you.Dave Mills

There are exceptions, but I have found this to be wise counsel (from my husband, no less) in both personal and professional relationships. When what was a warm, congenial relationship takes a turn toward the negative, you can actually work, from your side, to restore the relationship. Even to take it to a deeper level. It can get more uncomfortable at first, because you have to start with your own thoughts toward that person. How have they changed?

We send signals to each other – whether we speak or not.

My Mom raised us out of the era of Walt Disney’s Bambi:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Good counsel except for the conversations that still go on in our heads and color our attitudes, our tone of voice, our preferences, and our decisions.

Let’s say I have an amicable relationship with a colleague, and then something happens. I may not even be aware of it – a misunderstanding, a misconstrued action, an insensitivity unaware. Then a chill develops, or a clear outright dislike. I have a window of opportunity to clear that up. Otherwise, if I don’t act, then a process can begin where I decide that person is a jerk and has woefully misjudged me…and off we go.

Remember: This can go both ways. You may have had a few off days with a colleague, and find yourself just not thinking so well of him, then stop it! It’s possible you can keep them from picking up that signal and prevent the relationship from getting more toxic as they decide you’re not so great either.

If I refuse to think ill of another person and discipline myself to be respectful, deferent in my demeanor, and tireless in pursuing understanding, I could restore that relationship. If it doesn’t improve right away, my attitude and actions work for my own benefit and can definitely help build trust with my team members. One day…that relationship may also turn. It’s worth the effort.

Blog - What You Think of People Matters - Dave

Jon Acuff talks about the four ways we invest in our careers – through skills, character, hustle, and relationships. In an interview with LifeReimagined.com, he had this to say about difficult, or neglected, work relationships:

“Even if you have skills, character and hustle, without relationships, it’s the career version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Why?”

“If you don’t have relationships, you eventually don’t have people in your life who can tell you the truth about the decisions you’re making. You don’t have people who can tell you no or question you honestly. What I’ve learned is that leaders who can’t be questioned end up doing questionable things.”LifeReimagined.com interview with Jon Acuff

He identifies three types of people in our lives (work or otherwise, really): friends, foes, and advocates. Jon writes in Do Over:

“The best thing to give a foe is distance. We should ignore most foes. The problem of course is that we won’t. If your definition of foe is too loose and is essentially “anyone who kind of bothers me ever,” your job is going to be miserable. If you see people as your adversaries, it’s almost impossible to have a good working relationship with them. The first thing is to understand whether these foes are clueless or calculated. A clueless foe is that person whose behavior encourages you to fail. They are not malicious. They are not trying to make you lose, but with the power of their influence you are. “Bad habits are almost always a social disease – if those around us model and encourage them, we’ll almost always fall prey. Turn ‘accomplices’ into ‘friends’ and you can be two-thirds more likely to succeed.”Jon Acuff, Do Over

I think what Jon says is true. Because of my own worldview and value system (and married to Dave all these years), I don’t think we can just acknowledge there are foes out there and distance yourself from them. Sometimes, that is virtually impossible and still be effective at work. Because what can happen, if we don’t act to keep our own thinking clear, is that we take on some of that “foe-dom” ourselves. Maybe you aren’t going to be bosom buddies with this person, but your own work and other relationships can suffer if you develop bad habits around this person. Better to work on the relationship.

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“For no matter what we achieve, if we don’t spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect, we cannot possibly have a great life. But if we spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect – people we really enjoy being on the bus with and who will never disappoint us – then we will almost certainly have a great life, no matter where the bus goes. The people we interviewed from the good-to-great companies clearly loved what they did, largely because they loved who they did it with. – Jim Collins, Good to Great

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For as he thinks within himself, so he is. Proverbs 23:7

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.Philippians 4:8

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 Do Over by Jon Acuff

Fourteen Indispensable Leadership Quotes from Jim Collins – Thom Rainer

How to Deal With Difficult Co-workers – Read keeping in mind that some days you might be the one perceived as difficult.

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Photos: Just a few of the men in Dave’s life who required no special work on his part to love and respect…and there are many more. Grateful.