Conflict Management Using Assertive Silence

One of the most powerful conflict management tools I learned in my journey to becoming a Pack Leader was to stop talking. I now see silence as a powerful tool in being assertive, although in our verbal society today this may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t I talk a lot to make my point clear?

As a former Submissive personality, I had been like the yapping dog who barks at every breeze or passing car. Eventually no one takes him seriously. He isn’t a watchdog because his communication has lost value.

It wasn’t that I talked too much, it was I talked too much at the wrong times.

When are the wrong times? During arguments, which is when most people talk a lot! When I argued with my second husband, it was because he was accusing me falsely of cheating on him. I wanted to defend my honor, prove him wrong and clear my record. So I argued and talked incessantly. This proved that I was desperate for his approval and wanted to look good — a weak, unassertive position for a relationship. I should have responded to his accusations with silence and turning on my heel.

I now see this communication pattern in couples and families who come for therapy. Unfortunately all this talking can end up backfiring. This is the usual scenario:  Parent states long list of complaints against child. When the parent stops talking, the child sits silently, stonewalling, avoiding eye contact. (This is using silence in a manipulative, not assertive, way.) So the parent, feeling uncomfortable about the silence and conflict, begins talking again repeating the same list of complaints. Now the child reacts by saying: “This is what she always does — nags nonstop. See how emotional she gets. It’s crazy.” The child has succeeded in changing the topic to her nagging behavior, not the facts of her complaints. The child gets to avoid accountability for his or her behavior and spin the complaints back toward the parent. All because the parent didn’t use assertive silence assertive.

Instead of talking endlessly, the parent should have picked one point, stated it, then sat waiting silently for a response. When the child stonewalled, the parent should have pointed out that this  behavior was inappropriate and an avoidance of accountability, then stopped talking. Her discomfort at the conflict leads her to fill the silence with words, signaling her weakness and lack of assertiveness.

A huge part of being assertive is truly believing in the value of what you have to say, stating it firmly once, then not feeling the need to backfill and re-state to fill the silence.

Good, strong eye contact and body language also help communicate that you mean business, even if you aren’t saying a word.

Of course, Pack Leader dogs use minimal communication, relying on calm, direct body language to communicate their power in the pack. They bark very little and this is definitely a lesson we humans should bring into our relationships.