Anyone who knows me well would use the words chatty, highly verbal, or strongly interactive to describe me in a relationship—unless I’m employing a technique that therapists call strategic silence. It’s used to help clients sit with and expand feelings by helping the therapist from getting in their way of doing so. This blog is not about how strategic silence is used in therapy. It’s teaching you how to use this technique to improve your interpersonal skills dealing with difficult people.
Social discourse generally involves one person saying something and another saying something in return. A back-and-forth volley of words is expected as in playing tennis. When your opponent hits the ball over the net, it’s assumed you’ll hit it back.
To learn to use strategic silence effectively, you must realize you’re breaking a social norm and feel okay about it. You also need a conscious reason for doing so which is self-care and not falling prey to verbal abusers and bullies, naggers and people who won’t let a subject go, and narcissists who really aren’t interested in your input anyway.
Technically, we’re not required by social etiquette to respond to someone’s statement, but we are expected to respond to a question. If our spouse asks, “How was your day?” it’s appropriate to answer the question, so we do. However, if our spouse says, “Boy I bet you just sat around here all day and did nothing,” I see no reason a response is called for. They have a right to give their opinion but, strategically, if you’re trying to not feed into what they’re (so obviously) trying to provoke in you, remain silent.
Although therapists may use strategic silence to help clients, you can use it to help yourself stay emotionally safe. When someone says something that’s uncalled for or unacceptable, simply remain mum. This is not an easy stance to take initially. It does get easier over time. You may have already done something like it when someone said something unkind to you and you simply walked away. You were effectively cutting off discussion. Using strategic silence is slightly different in that you remain in place.
If the other person then asks, “Didn’t you hear me?”, to be appropriate, you can say that you did. However, if they repeat the statement, you still don’t need to respond to it. Trust me, after this back-and-forth happens a couple of times, the other party will eventually get the idea that you are not going to respond if there is no question asked. Remember, you’re not doing this to rile the other person up, but because you don’t like either what was said or the demand that you respond to it. It’s a technique to avoid getting into a discussion that you don’t want to get into.