Dear Crucial Skills,
One of my coworkers has refused to communicate with me in any way for more than a year, but I don’t know what I did to offend her. I spoke to the office manager and my immediate supervisor regarding the situation, but they told me I should not confront her. Now it is very difficult to go to work each day because several of my coworkers ignore me and exclude me from meetings, lunch invitations, and more. What should I do?
Iced out. The silent treatment. The cold shoulder. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.
This is the extreme form of going to silence and is a common strategy we use in dealing with each other. Not only have most of us experienced the silent treatment, but most of us have also used this strategy to protect ourselves or manipulate others into trying to get what we want.
Many of us have experienced first-hand the awful consequences of yelling, screaming, and even physical violence. As a result, we have vowed not to allow violence to be part of our repertoire. When we encounter a crucial conversation, we eschew violence and engage in silence, believing that we are choosing a more virtuous path. Unfortunately, when we do this, we are fooling ourselves.
Silence is a hurtful strategy. At best, by avoiding a subject and making it an “undiscussable,” we assure problems will not be resolved and will likely fester or get worse. Giving someone the silent treatment can also convey a painful message: you are not worth the effort it takes to talk with you. You are worthless. This message—whether intentional or not—can be devastating and play upon a person’s deepest fears.
The situation you describe at work seems beyond petty and is certainly dysfunctional. The fact that the silent treatment you are receiving extends beyond a single coworker suggests a conspiracy and is more than working through a single relationship. In especially tough situations, our tendency can be to see ourselves as victims of the situation and of others. We also tend to assume that we have no options. Overcome this victim story by asking yourself, “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?” The answer to this question is “the rest of the story” that you are not considering. By considering other perspectives you can escape any victim stories you may be telling yourself.
What can you do? You have at least three options:
1. If you don’t like your current situation, change it.
2. If you can’t change your situation, remove yourself from it.
3. If the cost of removing yourself from the situation is too high, decide how you can cope with it in a healthy, helpful way.
If you decide to work on changing the situation, I recommend you hold a crucial conversation with your supervisor and office manager. You initially involved them, but their solution is not working so you should return to them. Factually describe the gap between what is happening and what you would expect to happen in an efficient, effective work team. Share the consequences of your coworkers’ behavior on productivity and quality of work, on others on the team, and on yourself. Ask for your leaders’ help in changing the situation. It might require a team meeting where you have a crucial conversation with your coworkers. In this meeting, talk openly about what is happening. Identify the behaviors you see and ask your coworkers why they are behaving in this manner.
Have you said or done something that caused problems or offense? Be open. Listen. Honestly diagnose the cause. Share the consequences as you see them. Seek resolution and agreement as to how you will all interact going forward.
If you cannot get a satisfactory resolution, can you transfer to another work unit? Can you leave this job and go to a more healthy work environment? If so, begin planning your exit.
If this option is too drastic or does not provide a better situation, how can you cope with an unhealthy situation in a healthy way? Can you see this as a long-term influence effort where you will continue to seek mutual purpose and be unconditionally respectful to others, with the intent to help, not hurt? Can you see their silence as their problem and continue to do your job in a satisfying manner? Can you continue to grow in your job and career and find fulfillment even if your coworkers don’t invite you to lunch? Can you be happy and healthy in the short-term, even as you develop long-term solutions to the current situation?
Intentionally avoiding tough conversations and “freezing” others out is dysfunctional; it hurts relationships and team results. Do not accept such a situation as a “given.” You do not control others, but you do control your response to others. Choose to be an influencer. Influence for the better—both others and yourself.
All the best,