HOW IS SILENCE USED IN CONFLICT: AS TIME-OUT OR AS A POSITION? WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO AND THEIR EFFECTS ON ITS RESOLUTION?
One’s relationship to silence is very personal. One may feel comfortable or uncomfortable with it. There are those who feel the need to fill the empty spaces with words and those who are happy for silence to fall naturally. Silence can bond or divide. It can be a pause, a breath one takes in a conversation or discussion, or an iron curtain drawn between people, groups and countries.
SO WHAT IS SILENCE?
Like conflict, silence is energy; it is neither good nor bad, it just is. It is both constructive and destructive. Its effect is determined by how it is used and how one relates to it.
Silence is a resource, a tool and a weapon. It may be used to keep secrets; for the good of all, or out of fear or to control.
For example, silence can be:
- Used to retain a new project or information under wraps (e.g. something awaiting a patent)
- A spiritual practice; used in magical traditions to retain the purity of teachings and strengthen the work undertaken
- Imposed upon, or adopted by, victims of any abuse and accompanies shame and fear
- A form of bullying and punishment
SILENCE AS A STAND IN CONFLICT
Everyone has the right to say ‘no’ to anything, including to talking, but how one relays that choice and uses the space needed, can affect interpersonal dynamics.
Depending on this, silence can:
- Prolong the situation without closure and understanding
- Increase resentment and power games
- Help de-escalate a situation and bring about resolution
- Foster learning and insight from a place of calm and grace
Silence can be used passively or passive-aggressively as a form of avoidance and control, or assertively to call time-out.
A passive stance may be:
- A sudden break in communication and rejection of requests to clarify the situation, or simply a denial of the existence of the problem
- Sulking and/or avoiding the person (even if it means foregoing an employment opportunity, social outing, or connection with a parent)
- Complaining to others, but denying that there is a problem when approached
Used in this way, silence is a punishment and contributes to a conflict’s escalation or perpetuation. Indeed, this is what Arnold Mindell calls “the victim as terrorist” – holding people to ransom with their stance.
Conversely, the passive-aggressive attitude is more engaged. It uses silence more ambivalently in what could be termed a ‘yes-no-maybe’ communication style. This manifests as the use of sarcasm to communicate resentment, without necessarily wanting to address the issue directly.
A passive-aggressive position may include:
- Using silence to intentionally ignore or exclude someone at work or socially
- Talking disparagingly about the person behind their back and/or spreading untruths while refusing to speak to them
- Shooting Arrows: making ambiguous yet cutting remarks to hurt the other while refusing to communicate directly – this can be orally or via social media
- Blaming and taking no responsibility for equal contribution
In both these cases, when silence is used as a position in conflict, it creates a power game; it’s potentially bullying and can escalate the situation further or end it in resentment.
SILENCE AS TIME-OUT: THE ASSERTIVE APPROACH:
Children will often keep fighting until there is a clear winner or until an adult steps in to stop it. When grown-ups argue and old wounds are reignited, there are often little children at play who need an adult to intervene.
Applying the Parent-Adult- Child Model of Transactional Analysis to the use of silence helps to see it from a different perspective.
The Child will sulk and/or hit out; the Parent will punish and refuse to speak, while the Adult calls time-out in a respectful way.
Calling time-out as an Adult means:
- Challenging the behaviour or dynamic and not attacking the person. “This discussion is getting out hand”, not: “You are out of hand”
- Speaking from the “I”: “I need time-out/space right now”
- The assertive adult does not belittle, but relays their own need in a respectful manner and may also give an indication of the time frame needed
Asking for time-out in this way can create a constructive space for de-escalation, although what one does with that time will also determine the course the situation will take.
ESCALATING OR DE-ESCALATING THOUGHTS?
Imagine a boxing ring when the bell rings announcing the end of the round. The coach jumps in and pep talks the boxer, getting them fired up to get back in and knock out the opponent.
When silence falls on an argument or a conflict, we are in that space between ‘rounds’. The question is, what are our thoughts (and friends) coaching us to do – are they firing us up or calming us down? Are we using the space to gather ammunition that will discredit our opponent and knock them out cold?
- Are we in Parent, Adult or Child mode?
- Are we considering all viewpoints and alternatives or just our wounded perspective?
APPROACHING SILENCE FROM THE AND-PRINCIPLE:
One way to stop the cycle and de-escalate the situation is to look for the teaching that this interaction brings and consider alternative thinking, including our contribution.
Using the And-principle means disengaging from either-or thinking that validates our ‘rightness’ and assumptions, and instead consider the silence from a different standpoint.
For instance seeing it:
- As a rejection of the dynamic rather than of us as a person
- As a possibility that they are also hurting
- That they may be withdrawing to avoid saying or causing further hurt
- That they may need time-out to reflect
In so doing, we approach it as a space for reflection and healing; as a potential bereavement of a dynamic or relationship and/or as an examination of our attitudes and behaviour.
USING SILENCE CONSTRUCTIVELY
The majority of interpersonal conflicts have two sides and carry equal contribution.
Remembering this can help us consider:
- Our actions from their perspective
- Our needs and theirs – are there similarities?
- Can we relate to their needs, even if we don’t share them?
When the fiery energy of anger-driven hurts has expended itself, we can then consider the sadness and the fears. Silence can help us arrive at a place of grace and calm. What can we let go of? Can we forgive ourselves and the other for what has happened?
From that silent place, we can hear the compassionate voice of our true self rather, than the boisterous ego competing for the Olympic power-games!
We can hear our wisdom, truth, clarity, humility and vulnerability. If we are the ones who have asked for silence, we may suggest communication and if we are not, we respect their need for space. Either way we have used silence to arrive at a place of peace, understanding and forgiveness.
Calling for silence need not be destructive or a temporary ceasefire until the next round! Silence can also be used as a conflict management tool that can help us move out of the drama, to an authentic place in which our true feelings inform us of our fears, needs, contribution and choices.
Asking for time-out in a respectful manner paves the way towards resolution.
When someone is not speaking to us, silence may feel like a weapon and perhaps also bereavement; an emotional journey towards letting go, accepting and ultimately, transformation. While we cannot force another to speak, we can use their silence to learn.
Silence brings all our emotions and wisdom to the surface – do we dare to truly listen?