Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Why People Go to Silence and How to Help Them Open Up

Dear Crucial Skills,

What is the root cause for people to choose silence rather than to verbalize what they want or need from others? Why would they avoid having a Crucial Conversation at the expense of what they need?


Dear Wondering,

Whether someone’s propensity is to go to silence or verbal violence, they do so for the same reason: they feel unsafe.

Let’s retrace the path to action, a principle we teach in Crucial Conversations. As soon as a conversation transitions from routine to crucial, we follow a certain and predictable path. First, we See and Hear what is going on in that conversation. Did the other person suddenly become defensive? Did their tone of voice change? Did they physically tense up, appear agitated, or break off eye contact?

After we see and hear clues that the conversation has taken a turn, we Tell a Story about what just happened. We might assume we did or said something to offend. Perhaps we believe they’re over-reacting. Or maybe we recognize a pattern and think, “Here they go again.” Whether we paint ourselves the victim, villain, or hero, we’ve told ourselves a story about the situation and our role in it.

Our stories create Feelings leading to the next stop on the path to action. These stories trigger immediate emotions and judgements rooted in a lifetime of patterns, experiences, traumas, and behaviors. Based on those feelings we complete the path by Acting—we either go to silence or verbal violence, or land somewhere on that spectrum.

This is why no two paths to action will look the same. Our reaction to crucial moments happens quickly and is determined by the stories we tell ourselves.

So, when someone goes to silence, it may be that history has taught them silence is the best bet for a quick ending to an uncomfortable conversation. Perhaps silence has been modeled to them over the years, or perhaps they think they are at fault and are feeling remorseful, scared, or hurt. Regardless, their silence isn’t really the issue, it’s just how their path to action commonly plays out. The real issue is that they feel unsafe in the conversation, and their silence is your cue to restore safety.

Why is safety so important? It’s your only option for resolution. When people feel psychologically safe in the conversation, it is possible to say nearly anything and resolve nearly everything.

One note about safety before explaining how you can restore it. You might think you are at fault when others don’t feel psychologically safe—that you’ve done something evil or unkind—but that isn’t always the case. The way other people react isn’t necessarily your fault. They are responsible for their reactions which, as stated, may be rooted in events and history that have nothing to do with you. Regardless, you can take steps to restore safety and increase the likelihood of open dialogue.

Here are a few skills for making it safe so people don’t go to silence—or verbal violence.

State Your Positive Intentions

Perhaps it doesn’t take much for this person to see, assume, feel, and act – or quickly go to silence. Perhaps they are coming into the conversation assuming it will go poorly and looking for any sign that they were right. Get ahead of that by stating your positive intentions and your respect for them up front. When others feel respected and trust your motives for speaking to them, they let their guard down and begin to listen and contribute—even if the topic is unpleasant.

Rebuild Safety, Repeatedly

If the conversation was going fine and then suddenly turned a corner, step out of the conversation and rebuild safety. Pause and state (or restate if needed) your intentions. Say something like, “It seems like you might be feeling uneasy. I want you to know that I have every intention of engaging in a friendly dialogue here where we can explore solutions together. I really respect your opinion and hope you’ll contribute.”

Ask for Permission

If you know you’re going to engage in a high-stakes conversation, don’t catch this person off guard. Instead, invite them into the dialogue. Begin the conversation by asking for their permission. This courtesy builds trust. And just as before, if you see movement towards silence, step outside the content, rebuild safety, and return to the conversation.

Ask for Feedback

Perhaps there is something you are doing that triggers this person to choose silence. Again, it might be completely innocent, but the information could help you act differently for a more positive outcome. Simply say, “I notice that you often shut down when the conversation gets a bit tough. Is there something I’m saying or doing that is causing you to react that way? If there is something I can do that would help you feel more comfortable opening up, I’d be happy to try.” This takes humility, and you may feel it isn’t something you should have to do. But if your motive is to truly solve problems or build the relationship, humility is essential.

Don’t Force It

Crucial conversations skills are just that, skills—they are not a means to manipulate others or magic tricks to elicit your desired outcome. If you’ve tried repeatedly and respectfully to make it safe for this person to engage and they won’t, then you must choose a path from there. You can’t force dialogue.

I believe if you are consistent in your efforts to make it safe, the other person will feel the difference and begin to open up. Over time, you will build a relationship based on trust and respect—two of the most important elements to healthy dialogue.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

15 thoughts on “Why People Go to Silence and How to Help Them Open Up”

  1. Craig William Morgan

    Very clearly stated and understandable. Thank You!

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you Craig. Appreciate the nice note.

    2. Mervin Rogers

      Your contribution is refreshingly solid. I may have added, “Be natural in every way. People love authenticity and liked to be listened to.”

  2. yulonda

    I felt this was very helpful, I am usually the one that stops talking if I am uncomfortable and scared.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      I’m so glad. Thank you for reading and best of luck in your future dialogue.

  3. Douglas McNair

    I truly appreciated this article from Brittney Maxfield. I have been both the victim, and at times the perpetrator of Story-Telling and Silencing. Crucial Communications training has helped me improve tremendously, but it is still a very real presence in my life, and indeed within the bureaucracies I work. I definitely have not reached conversational nirvana…
    I am sure it has been previously stated in Crucial Learning Training, but it particularly spoke to me this time. Brittney stated, ” If you’ve tried repeatedly and respectfully to make it safe…, and they won’t, then you must choose a path from there. You can’t force dialogue.” The difficulty is in determining if you have sufficiently exercised the criteria of repeated, respectful, and safe invitation to honest communications. Even so, it is great to see within your organization’s conversations that resignation that we can only control our own actions and emotions, and eventually there may come a time when we must abandon others to the consequences of their own attitudes and behaviors.
    You have provided some of my favorite and most beneficial training.
    Thank You, Doug.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      Thank you Doug! We are all eternal students of these skills because our context, emotions, topics, experiences are constantly shifting. No two conversations are the same! Each are tricky in their own way. I’m so glad the principles have been helpful as you navigate your relationships. And yes, there are times when our best efforts won’t be enough, but you can walk way knowing you did all you could. Best of luck.

  4. Cheryl

    Thoughtfully laid out in understandable terms. I found this very useful and will be sharing it with my team.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      I’m so glad. Thank you!

  5. Sarah R.

    Thank you for mentioning past trauma. I tend to go to silence because I grew up with a father who exploded in anger every time I or another family member tried to discuss a difficult subject. He thought his word should be law, period. I was hard-wired to keep quiet, to “not make waves.” It took a long time to undo that programming, and it only happened with the help of my long-time work colleagues and my company’s commitment to the Crucial Conversations program. I’ve been very candid about my bad habits and where they came from, and my manager and director have been very empathetic and willing to reassure me, and they encourage me to be open and candid.

    Also, it’s important to convey true sincerity in your desire for feedback. I’ve been in situations where the “Please tell me what you think” seemed performative; in a couple of instances, it felt almost like a trap! Nothing that will silence a room quicker than the sense that the discussion is just an exercise in BS or a setup for a Gotcha! moment.

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      How wonderful to have such a supportive team. I’m so happy to hear Crucial Conversations has been a driver of that success. Thank you for reading and best of luck.

  6. Debbie Lane

    I love this information and sometimes feel like you need to be “a Saint” to be successful at this. My struggle is with a couple long-term (40 years) friends who have taken the passive/aggressive route: silence – to canceling the friendship when it’s time to address some “bumps” in our relationship. I never “cancel” the relationship. I always want to talk it out and resolve, but they can’t seem to go there with me. If I wait till they are “ready” to talk face-to-face, the conversation will not likely happen (as it did not in one case). So when confronted a second time (many years later) with having a hard conversation with another friend (who has a pattern of canceling friendships when difficulty is expressed) it was either “now or never” for me to have the conversation regardless if she was “ready”. My intention is to keep communication open and improve our friendship, by having the skills and maturity to get through the occasional bump in the road. It’s as if the few negatives have been blown-up in such a way that all the positives over the years are erased. I need more training. 🙂

    1. Brittney Maxfield

      You’re not alone in your feelings. It’s one thing to write about the skills, and another to use them. I am continually making missteps and learning to do it better next time. Best of luck in your tricky conversations. Thank you for reading.

  7. Bonnie Moore

    Thank-you for this very helpful guidance. I have been slowly developing these skills over time and though there is always room for growth, I do feel Crucial Learning has helped me strengthen these skills. While I find it much easier to employ these skills in 1-1 communication to restore safety and resume dialog, I find it much more challenging to do so when it is a group discussion and an individual(s) become silent or verbally violent. Or when one person becomes verbally violent and the resulting impact is the others become silent. I struggle with how to restore safety in these situations and with determining how to approach in the moment and what might be better to approach afterwards in a 1-1 discussion. Everyone in my work team is very open and dialogs well in individual discussions, but there are some that occasionally become silent or verbally violent in team discussions. Particularly when sharing direction from executive management that is not well received by the team. I would appreciate any advice on how to approach these situations.

  8. Faith Kirumba

    I oftenly go silent when I feel like my energy is being drained more than what am getting from others, I am managing a business at the moment and there are times I feel like the employees only rely on my energy to always be positive, cheery and happy all the time totally disregarding the fact that managing a business in these times ain’t an easy job and it sometimes takes a turn for me and I turn completely quiet and it gets hard to get back to my happy cheerfulness just like that ,,,,I have no idea what that makes me I would just like to here your opinion on that.

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