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Strategic Silence


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 therapists call strategic silence. It’s used to encourage clients to sit with and expand feelings by helping the therapist get out of their way. This blog is not about how strategic silence is used in therapy. It’s meant to teach you how to use this technique to improve your dealings with difficult people.

Social discourse involves one person saying something and another saying something in return. A back-and-forth volley of words is expected as it is in playing tennis: When your opponent lobs the ball over the net, it’s assumed you’ll try to hit it back. 

To use strategic silence effectively, you must accept and feel okay about breaking a social norm. You also need a valid reason for using it which is self-care and not falling prey to verbal abusers and bullies, naggers, people who won’t let a subject go, and narcissists who really aren’t interested in what you have to say anyway. 

Here’s the thing: Technically, we’re not required by social etiquette to respond to statements but are expected to respond to questions. 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,” no response is called for because no question was asked. Remaining silent helps you not feed into your spouse (so obviously) trying to provoke you. 

When someone says something that’s uncalled for or unacceptable, you can simply remain mum. This is not an easy stance to take. It goes against the grain initially but gets 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 but don’t engage in dialogue.

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 or be hurtful, but because you don’t like either what was said or the demand that you respond to it. It’s the perfect technique for avoiding discussions you don’t want to get into.