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The silent treatment

A few days ago I read a Facebook post about two types of silence, when there is conflict. One increases trust and connection; the other decreases it. In the first kind, you let the other person know what’s alive in you, and tell them that you need some space to reflect and self-connect. In the second kind, you withdraw from the conflict without speaking, and leave the other person wondering what has happened.

Reading the post brought up some very personal memories on the topic of silence. When I was a teenager, if I disagreed with my father, he stopped talking to me. I remember feeling helpless and sad, and also withdrew. I also felt angry — I judged him as someone who wasn’t able to identify and express his feelings, even though he was an adult. I received his silence as punishment.

It’s taken me a long time to understand his anger more fully. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has helped me to become more aware of my feelings and to understand where they come from. I’ve become more aware of my habitual behaviour when I get angry. I’ve noticed that when I’m angry, I’m in deep pain. In this state, it’s difficult to speak and difficult to keep the connection to myself and others. I have a tendency to withdraw and get stuck. I wonder if this is how my father felt?

My father didn’t have the support of NVC. He grew up in Germany during WW2, as the eldest of five children. I guess that in his family there wasn’t space for feelings. Words like good, bad, right and wrong were often used. He learned about different roles in the family. Fathers made the decisions. Children, especially girls, were supposed to do what they were told.

With the benefit of NVC training, I can understand that people go silent like this are usually in pain. Maybe they do have the intention to punish other people with their silence. However, looking more deeply, I can now see that they are human beings, in pain. I can understand that their silence comes from a need to protect themselves, or to be seen and heard, or to be valued. If their intention is to punish, I can understand that they want some kind of balance for their pain (an eye for an eye), and understanding for the depth of their pain.

This doesn’t mean that I am happy with their strategy, or agree with their worldview. However, understanding their needs increases the likelihood that I will keep the connection, even though it’s difficult. The sound of silence now means something different to me. I’m less likely to feel hurt, and more likely to understand that the person needs protection and/or understanding. I still feel sad, because I’m longing for a stable connection. I dream of a world where we can express our anger without losing the connection. And I’m committed to developing the skills to reconnect after an angry episode.

Thanks to Shantigarbha for helping me to put my thoughts into words in a second language!

Gesine’s next online series: How to deal with triggers, starts on 27 February 2019.