Why People Go to Silence and How to Help Them Open Up

Whether someone’s propensity is to go to silence or verbal violence, they do so for the same reason: they feel unsafe.

Let’s retrace the path to action, a principle we teach in Crucial Conversations. As soon as a conversation transitions from routine to crucial, we follow a certain and predictable path. First, we See and Hear what is going on in that conversation. Did the other person suddenly become defensive? Did their tone of voice change? Did they physically tense up, appear agitated, or break off eye contact?

After we see and hear clues that the conversation has taken a turn, we Tell a Story about what just happened. We might assume we did or said something to offend. Perhaps we believe they’re over-reacting. Or maybe we recognise a pattern and think, “Here they go again.” Whether we paint ourselves the victim, villain, or hero, we’ve told ourselves a story about the situation and our role in it.

Our stories create Feelings leading to the next stop on the path to action. These stories trigger immediate emotions and judgements rooted in a lifetime of patterns, experiences, traumas, and behaviours. Based on those feelings we complete the path by Acting—we either go to silence or verbal violence, or land somewhere on that spectrum.

This is why no two paths to action will look the same. Our reaction to crucial moments happens quickly and is determined by the stories we tell ourselves.

So, when someone goes to silence, it may be that history has taught them silence is the best bet for a quick ending to an uncomfortable conversation. Perhaps silence has been modelled to them over the years, or perhaps they think they are at fault and are feeling remorseful, scared, or hurt. Regardless, their silence isn’t really the issue, it’s just how their path to action commonly plays out. The real issue is that they feel unsafe in the conversation, and their silence is your cue to restore safety.

Why is safety so important? It’s your only option for resolution. When people feel psychologically safe in the conversation, it is possible to say nearly anything and resolve nearly everything.

One note about safety before explaining how you can restore it. You might think you are at fault when others don’t feel psychologically safe—that you’ve done something evil or unkind—but that isn’t always the case. The way other people react isn’t necessarily your fault. They are responsible for their reactions which, as stated, may be rooted in events and history that have nothing to do with you. Regardless, you can take steps to restore safety and increase the likelihood of open dialogue.

Here are a few skills for making it safe so people don’t go to silence—or verbal violence.

State Your Positive Intentions

Perhaps it doesn’t take much for this person to see, assume, feel, and act – or quickly go to silence. Perhaps they are coming into the conversation assuming it will go poorly and looking for any sign that they were right. Get ahead of that by stating your positive intentions and your respect for them up front. When others feel respected and trust your motives for speaking to them, they let their guard down and begin to listen and contribute—even if the topic is unpleasant.

Rebuild Safety, Repeatedly

If the conversation was going fine and then suddenly turned a corner, step out of the conversation and rebuild safety. Pause and state (or restate if needed) your intentions. Say something like, “It seems like you might be feeling uneasy. I want you to know that I have every intention of engaging in a friendly dialogue here where we can explore solutions together. I really respect your opinion and hope you’ll contribute.”

Ask For Permission

If you know you’re going to engage in a high-stakes conversation, don’t catch this person off guard. Instead, invite them into the dialogue. Begin the conversation by asking for their permission. This courtesy builds trust. And just as before, if you see movement towards silence, step outside the content, rebuild safety, and return to the conversation.

Ask For Feedback

Perhaps there is something you are doing that triggers this person to choose silence. Again, it might be completely innocent, but the information could help you act differently for a more positive outcome. Simply say, “I notice that you often shut down when the conversation gets a bit tough. Is there something I’m saying or doing that is causing you to react that way? If there is something I can do that would help you feel more comfortable opening up, I’d be happy to try.” This takes humility, and you may feel it isn’t something you should have to do. But if your motive is to truly solve problems or build the relationship, humility is essential.

Don’t Force It

Crucial conversations skills are just that, skills—they are not a means to manipulate others or magic tricks to elicit your desired outcome. If you’ve tried repeatedly and respectfully to make it safe for this person to engage and they won’t, then you must choose a path from there. You can’t force dialogue. I believe if you are consistent in your efforts to make it safe, the other person will feel the difference and begin to open up. Over time, you will build a relationship based on trust and respect—two of the most important elements to healthy dialogue.

Latest Blog Posts

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.