Silence in relationships is powerful. We’ve all fallen prey to it. For many of us, it’s a go-to habit. But it keeps relationships from thriving.
For those with the goal of building close-knit church community with others, it’s a red flag. It’s crucial that it be consistently dealt with if a community is to have any hope of thriving long-term.
The problem with silence
The problem with the silent treatment when it comes to issues in relationships is that its typically even more damaging than an argument. Why? Because conflicts are never resolved by silence.
When relationships lack communication, a false sense of security can develop. It seems like everything is OK. But as issues fester, they create a disconnection with those you’re in relationship with. You don’t get to know the other person on a deeper level. You don’t get to understand their motives in different situations.
In a quote from the book Rooting Out Relationship Killers, author Stephen Matthew points this out about using silence in communication…
In the void caused by the silence, conspiracy theories are incubated, fear takes root and insecurities deepen. However you answer the question to yourself, it will be wrong! But in the silence, your wrong conclusion festers, grows and chokes the relationship.
The power play of silence
People will use silence mainly in their attempts to exercise power in a relationship and/or avoid conflict. By not communicating, it can make others feel powerless.
People will make decisions and expect them to be accepted by others without ever communicating about them. Or they’ll use silence to withhold their participation, which keeps a community from moving in any direction with full buy-in.
By not communicating, there’s a chance they’ll avoid others in the relationship disagreeing with them. Many times silence by someone breeds silence by the others as well. This just compounds the problem.
Overall, silence is a symptom of the first relationship red flag addressed in this post – independence. By remaining silent, it means a person is exercising their independence from the rest of the group in a passive-aggressive way.
Different forms of silent treatment
Silence can take different forms in a community depending on the context and the intentions of the people involved. These include…
- Refusing to talk. This is the most obvious.
- Short responses. Watch for short or minimal answers that give you a sense of disinterest, frustration, or displeasure.
- Delayed responses. Watch for intentionally taking a long time to respond to messages, calls or emails.
- Avoidance. Watch for canceling plans, making excuses not to see them, or changing plans at the last minute.
- Nonverbal cues. Watch for cues such as body language and facial expressions. For example, crossing arms, avoiding eye contact, or staring blankly can signal disinterest or frustration.
- Everything is fine. This is the most difficult because there’s no indication whatsoever that there’s an issue that needs addressed. I’ll talk below about a good method for dealing with this.
What happens long-term
Without issues that people are being silent about getting addressed openly and quickly, a simmering resentment is generated. The issue doesn’t go away. Instead, the resentment attaches itself to other things as well that have nothing to do with the original issue. Things tend to snowball until there’s some sort of breaking point.
How to handle silence
I mentioned earlier that a signal silence is being used as a communication tactic is that everything is fine. Well, how in the world are you supposed to recognize that signal if there’s no indication that something is wrong?
This is where it’s important to establish a rhythm of regular check-ins for a community of people where everyone has an opportunity to “clear the air.”
We have meetings that we call “retros” where we retrospectively consider the state of the community, its relationships and activities. We enter these meetings with four questions to address…
- What is right?
- What is wrong?
- What is confusing?
- What is missing?
Many people need support in being communicative. Being intentional about providing these opportunities in a community is essential for its overall health.
I’d recommend providing these opportunities at least every 3-6 months, but many communities do them more often. Many even institute a practice of opening every gathering with an opportunity to clear the air. After all, should you be fellowshipping together if there’s underlying issues that are festering?
Many times gatherings will never get past this point, and that’s a good thing. The health of the relationships is the foundation of healthy community. This must be the priority from which to build everything else on.
With all of this said, there are appropriate times to stay silent. For instance, when a person is emotionally triggered and doesn’t feel like they can communicate in a healthy manner. The more upset a person gets, the stupider they get. So taking some time to calm down is wise. But, this needs to be short-lived.
Remember you are partners
The main thing to remember is that you are 50/50 partners with those you’re in relationship with. Partners cannot work together well if they use silence as a communication tactic. If the relationships are too fragile to be able to communicate openly and honestly, then you should reconsider if it’s worth having the relationship.
For a church to be healthy, the relationships have to be important enough that you’ll work together to do whatever you can to make sure silence doesn’t ruin your relationships.