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The Painful Truth about Silence and Violence

Dear Joseph,

I took the Style Under Stress test in the Crucial Conversations book during a group discussion class. I was upset and offended that I was classified as “violent” in my communications. Everyone else in the class tended more toward “silence.” We concluded that “silence” was better than “violence.” I was the odd man out and felt embarrassed. I considered leaving the class at that point. I can see that I have been aggressive in my conversations, but not violent. I do not see labeling me as violent as being helpful. Why did you feel it was important to use such an extreme word to encompass any kind of aggressive tendency?

Confused and Offended

Dear Confused,

You wanted an author, now you have one! Over the years, we have had a number of people react the way you have to our decision to use “violence” as the aggression category name in the Style Under Stress test. I appreciate that you stayed, and hope that you benefited from doing so. I am sad to hear we almost lost the chance to share our ideas with you because of your reaction to our word choice. Thanks for the chance to explain.

Provoke Reflection

Our primary reason for choosing this loaded term is to provoke reflection. For some time, I have marveled at the fact that the human consequences of various forms of aggressive communication do not correlate with the magnitude of the aggression. For example, a boss who simply talks condescendingly to a direct report can inflict enormous psychological harm—leaving her feeling inadequate and traumatized. On the other hand, a couple who both come from families who yelled a lot growing up might be able to rage at one another and emerge much less bruised. What matters is not the caliber of the verbal weapon, but the principle it employs. “Violence,” in our way of seeing it, is any attempt to use coercion to achieve my goal. It is a decision I make to use my superior size, position, vocabulary, confidence, or other asset against you in order to get what I want. We believe that the decision to act on this principle has serious moral implications, and our goal in using this word was to invite deeper reflection about that choice. For those who use it out of habit, or due to modeling in their childhood home, we hope that our deliberate use of this term helps them reassess whether this practice is consistent with their own values.

Honor the Wounded

We recoil from the thought of sanitizing this word by using a less value-laden term because we think it masks both the moral truth of aggressive practices, and dishonors those who suffer from them. Interestingly, I have never been pressed by someone with an aggressive boss, spouse, parent or neighbor to soften this word. When we think about how others affect us, this word seems to capture the experience better than a more academic reference.

Unfortunate Consequence

I regret that your group inferred from the labels “Silence” and “Violence” that “Silence” is somehow functionally or morally superior. I would vehemently disagree. Many of the worst horrors in the world were the consequence of the silence of many. Genocide. Workplace injuries and deaths. Toxic work environments. Immoral policies. Unsafe products. Interestingly, the founders of the great world religions are often exemplars of those who speak truth to power. And yet, generations later, worshipers mistakenly equate deference with righteousness—passivity with rectitude. Please know, as an author, this is not the message I intended to send by supporting our use of these two terms. They both cause immense damage. They both destroy relationships. They both are frequently animated by selfishness and dishonesty. I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. Or at least, help you understand where we are coming from.


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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15 thoughts on “The Painful Truth about Silence and Violence

  1. Great explanation and examples of violence and silence. I, too, was categorized as “violent” and it was a surprise to me; however, upon reflection, I was definitely using a tactic I learned as a child to get what I wanted. The idea that violence is using any type of advantage to coerce the other person into doing or saying what you want was very much reflected in my actions and word choices.
    I’ve been fortunate to receive the gift of Crucial Skills/Conversations twice in my career and credit these skills for a lot of my successes. Thank you for continuing to offer this program.

  2. I have found that silence can build to extreme volience. If issues are sweep under the rug, the rug becomes a mound you trip over every day that impedes everyone involved, families, work place, neighborhoods, ect. The balance is the challenge.

    1. Yes! I was married to someone that used silence in every situation. We were both using silence initially because neither of us were experienced with what healthy dialogue looks like. When I began to find my own voice, I found that every interaction was violence because I had so much animosity after being silent for so long. Silence vs. violence is a tough thing to look at, but so worth it. It stinks to label yourself as “violent” because of the connotation that word carries; however, I think that I did more damage to myself by interacting in a “silent” way. It is a balancing act.

  3. Count me as another who was taken aback by the term “violence” used in the context of verbal communication. This is such a great explanation!
    You won me over. This should be included in training materials.

  4. I also have been fortunate to have received this training twice in my career and I couldn’t agree more with the comments above. I continue to reflect on the principles shared through Crucial training. It has been one of the most powerful and impactful training I have ever received. Thank you for your thoughtful and honest response Joseph. Once again I am reminded of the power of our actions and the influence we have. I also recognize when I use both silence and violence, neither being helpful or healthy. I think it is the strong language that makes me pause and consider (or reconsider) my approach. Thank you for continuing to coach behaviours that make us much better communicators.

  5. If using advantages (confidence, vocab, etc.) to get what you want is verbal violence, what do we call what trail lawyers do in courtrooms? Law suits and workplace performance improvement plans? Aren’t all those, then, verbal violence too?

  6. I appreciate Joseph’s thorough explanation of the reason for choosing the descriptive terms (both “silence” and “violence”). I think if one were to consider the IMPACT of both behaviors, especially when used to the extreme, it’s easier to understand why these words are appropriate. Individuals who lean towards silence, such as myself, might find themselves using silence as a weapon rather than as a method of cooling down or thinking things through. The intent of this type of silence can indeed be just as harmful as violence. Likewise, thinking of violence as just physical might be why there is resistance to this word. Those who tend towards violence can cause much harm by using unecessarily harsh tones, words, and facial expressions and get their way from a seat of power or authority. These are weapons, also.

  7. Thank you for clarifying this issues with your audience. It is helpful to have a better understanding that both extremes in communication can be damaging to the audience who are “subjected” to them.

  8. Thank you for providing the explanations about both silence and violence. I actually practice both at times. Based on motives I have had in the past and seen in others, I agree that silence is definitely not the lesser or two evils.

    Silence simply means I refuse to be honest with a person with whom I am in conflict. It usually results in long, vociferous complaints to others about the other person. In the long term, that does a lot of harm. It damages my relationship with the other person and with the people to whom I take my complaints. That behavior can also destroy relationships between that other person and people who have absolutely nothing to do with the original conflict. There is often no explanation why.

    It really is better to be transparent and learn to address problems directly with the person as they come.

  9. I really appreciated this explanation as we have always wrestled with this term at my workplace and this was very helpful.
    I do have one question though, why did you use the pronoun “her” when referring to the employee in your scenario? Seems to further a stereotype. Couldn’t you have said “them” instead?

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