Giving People The Silent Treatment – it’s biblical, right?

[Updated from the archives.]


In How to Handle a Relationship You Wish Would Go Away, Sarah Beals discusses when to interact with difficult people and when it’s time to avoid them. There is a lot of wisdom in her post, both from Scripture and from her mom.

The same day I read Sarah’s post, I came across an interesting article on the value of giving difficult people the silent treatment. Entitled How to deal with jerks: Give ’em the silent treatment, it reports on some interesting research. While cautioning against turning the silent treatment into a passive/aggressive weapon, and noting the limited usefulness of the technique when it comes to significant or long-term relationships, the article gives some good insight:

The research reveals there are benefits to cutting off conversation with a person who is being obnoxious: It’s not as draining on your mental resources, you avoid conflict with someone offensive, and it’s much simpler than getting into a heated discussion.

I think those researchers are on to something, but I think what they are on to is nothing new. I think it’s thousands of years old.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him. (Proverbs 26:4.)

And Jesus said –

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. (Matthew 10:14 )

This seems harsh to us who have read that Jesus also wants us to love even our enemies. But there is a limit to how much time we are to spend with those who are hard to be with.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:17-18.)

You are not responsible for their actions or their response to your actions. All you are responsible is for your own actions in seeking peace with others. And sometimes that peace comes from separation. As Jesus said, it might even take leaving them behind as you move on.

Would this be a cause for celebration? More likely it will be cause for grieving. As Sarah said in her piece –

I vacillate between pitying them for their obviously miserable life and when I really stop to think about what their internal peace must be like, I feel compassion, but usually I dread them for making my life harder (selfish). I need to pray for them and myself … .

Prayer. That is a wise piece of advice she has there for us.

Silent treatment

When you pray for those you’ve found difficult you will find you’re able to focus more on Christ and what he has done for you, and you are able to leave the other person’s heart to Jesus to deal with.

After all, their hearts are not really our responsibility. Jesus is the one who is their Lord, not us. And likewise, we are not their Savior either.

But we can commit all of this to the One who is, and find peace resting in him ourselves.


Questions to ponder: How do you usually deal with difficult people? What effect do they have on you?


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25 Responses to Giving People The Silent Treatment – it’s biblical, right?

  1. Ruth says:

    Timely post. I get to listen a lot, to family members with myriad problems…2 hours on the phone is too much now, to friends, parents of students, even our mechanic came inside and told me a lot of personal,stuff, and said he knew I would know the answer. An hour later, I sort of helped, car not fixed, but all came good, except me.
    4 days holiday, then home just in the door and phone calls and demands til I felt sick amd had to call a halt, never done that before, even to my beloved brother.
    Doctor told me to stop listening the moment I feel squirmy, and change subject, then move on as I’m getting to involved. Hard to change habits, but when you’re having bad dreams and waking up sick and sweaty, then it’s time for me and God time, and an emotional rest. It is hard to stop, but conversations have a turning point, and to find that and change subject is now needed for a while.
    Reckon I will get my second wind, but God directed and controlled, I forget 60 isn’t the new anything, we may look better on the outside but we still,wear out on the inside!

    • Tim says:

      Those conversations can be wearing, and when they come in rapid succession it’s no wonder it messes with your sleep, Ruth. I’m praying for God’s rest for you.

      • Ruth says:

        Thankyou Tim, had a lovely big cry after I read your kind words, so needed. Agree too with keeping off blogs, news reports, interactive negative online stuff, and, watching only positive TV that leaves me feeling uplifted…not sure how MASH fits into that, but it does! Facebook is a good place because I only have a close group of family and friends, and I don’t add some I know if I’m not sure. I read, daily, Tim, then Joyce Meyer…go get ’em girl!…..Proverbs 31 blogs, Living Truth devotions and sermon, then check out different places depending how I feel. See posts from same people often and enjoy that a lot, we haven’t met in body, but mind and spirit seems a great place too. Having online friends pray and to pray for is awesome, to quote the young!

  2. Laura Droege says:

    Difficult people? Well, I tend to show a lot more grace to myself when I’M the difficult person than when some other human being is the difficult one. (This is one case where “love the sinner but hate the sin” is actually accurate, and not an excuse to hate both sin and sinner.) But when other people are difficult, depending on who it is, I tend to feel threatened, frightened, and guilty, even when there’s no cause to be. (This is particularly true when the “difficult person” is angry. Totally freaks me out.) Avoiding the person can be a way for me to regain my calm and react more rationally; unfortunately, this isn’t always possible in an argument/debate.

    As a related issue, how does this apply to online-only relationships?

    • Tim says:

      “… feel threatened, frightened, and guilty, even when there’s no cause to be.” I’ve experienced that too, Laura, and putting some separation between me and the person or situation is sometimes the only way to get to a place where I can move forward.

      When it comes to on-line relationships, I think it works the same way. I’ve taken a break from reading blogs or engaging people online. This usually does the trick for me.

  3. Online: I used to be on facebook. Now I’m not. I learned how to walk away.

    Offline: How do you show grace to someone who, as soon as they think they’ve won you over with their contrition, just goes back to being the same old manipulative, passive aggressive self? What do you do if this person is a member of your family? *Very* timely post, Tim! I’ve had something of an epiphany regarding a family member this week and am baffled to know what happens next. To continue as if there’s no problem sounds too much like enabling, but saying something never, ever works. Prayer and more prayer. Still makes me sad to think this person doesn’t actually know what love is, not really, and doesn’t know how to respect anyone but herself :-/

  4. Kathi says:

    I’ve had a difficult relationship with a family member for almost 10 years now. From what I have learned, I would guess that she is a narcissist. She will control the conversation for hours, let you know “how much you mean to her,” take jabs at me whenever she can slide them in, and then wonder to my mother why I never talk to her. After years of crying, worrying, wondering what I did wrong or what I could do better, confronting, and praying, I finally decided I could no longer devote any more energy to her. I felt like she was controlling me more than I liked or wanted. I have enough going on in my life to allow a relative that lives across the country to control my emotions.

    I decided to keep the peace while my grandmother was alive. I listened to her for hours on the phone and in person when I saw her. I sent cards and made the kids write thank you notes. But now, my grandmother has passed. At the funeral I took the jabs, contributed to conversations here and there, and basically figured out that I was done. Unfortunately my mom still has to deal with her, but when the time comes, I know she’ll be done with her too.

    Sorry for the lengthy response. Obviously these thoughts have gone on for a long time. I find no reason to spend emotional energy on someone who consistently only hurts and is out for themselves in the end. I have learned to be okay with breaking away.

    • Tim says:

      “I have learned to be okay with breaking away.”

      That’s a healthy way to look at it, Kathi. Paul was careful to say that our responsibility to get along well with others if we can stops short of being responsible for the other person’s part in the relationship.

  5. Pastor Bob says:

    Stray thoughts:
    When there is the possibility of saying something you should not, silence is best.
    When your words will only make it worse, silence is best.
    When you know your words will not make a difference — I have already made up my mind, don’t confuse me with fact (or truth) – silence is best.
    If you are too upset to speak, silence is essential.
    Having said all of this, why does one remain silent? At some point we are to forgive, Jesus commands it, but since there is no timetable, procrastination and comfort set in, now the line has been crossed – and the offended is now the sinner. The use (as quoted above) of silence as a passive-aggressive tool (weapon) has a name, the Bible calls it sin.

    Blessings to all!

    • Tim says:

      Good points, PB. As Ecclesiastes might have put it: there’s a time to keep your distance and remain silent, and a time to draw close and engage.

  6. Jeannie says:

    I remember the original post, Tim, and am very glad you’re running it again. I LOVE Pastor Bob’s succinct comments above about silence: “When there is the possibility of saying something you should not, silence is best. When your words will only make it worse, silence is best. When you know your words will not make a difference … silence is best. If you are too upset to speak, silence is essential.” These all ring totally true for me. I had a breakup with a close friend 2 years ago and only now after all this time can I really say with confidence and serenity that I’m getting “over it” and moving on. Silence served me well during this conflict. Not cold-shoulder silence, but simply choosing not to say the things that I might (in the heat of battle) want to say or feel like saying. I knew it wouldn’t help, so I didn’t fire back, and now I’m very glad that I didn’t. Maybe there will be a day when I will, but that day hasn’t come yet. Silence shouldn’t be a weapon, but it can be a spiritual discipline.

    • Tim says:

      “Silence shouldn’t be a weapon, but it can be a spiritual discipline.”
      Your experience mirrors mine, Jeannie, in that I’ve seen the fruit of well-exercised silence.

    • Kathi says:

      I stayed silent, 1) to keep the peace, 2) because I knew that anything I said wouldn’t make a difference, 3) because I don’t like saying things I shouldn’t say when I’m angry, and 4) because I knew that anything I said could be used against me later (which I learned when I spoke up to defend someone).

  7. Hi Tim, This reminded me of a talk that I heard not too long ago at the seniors’ residence where I volunteer. The home had asked a local psychologist who is a specialist in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, to speak to us about how to interact with residents who are exhibiting “challenging” behaviour. She told us that the best way to respond is not to confront the behaviour or argue with them, but to say something like, “I can see that this isn’t a good time to talk. I’ll come back later and we can try again.” This extricates you from the situation while still giving the impression that the behaviour is not desirable, and gives hope that the relationship can continue. Perhaps this strategy could be useful in other situations? I can’t say that I’ve tried it…
    Another thing this reminds me of is a poem that I wrote about a person in my life with whom I had a difficult relationship. This gentleman recently passed away, so now might be a good time to re-post it in his honour. It’s another way of thinking about the people whose behaviour is hard to understand. I hope this is helpful. Maureen

    • Tim says:

      That way of interacting in a difficult situation and yet also delaying further interaction is great, Maureen. It’s a handy tool for more than just the place you volunteer at, I think.

      (Couldn’t get the link to the poem to work, though.)

  8. Lesley says:

    This is good stuff, Tim. I have an extended family member who is very difficult and I’m mostly bit my tongue and kept a distance when possible, but there have been so many times when I want to put her in her place. I could and should be praying for her way more than I do!

    • Tim says:

      I’ll tell you, Lesley, I think I’d rather bite my tongue than eat my words. Your decision to keep your distance sounds even better.

  9. Ruth says:

    Ouch! I’ve been eating, but not my words. Managed to comfort eat my way up the scales, and feel worse for it, especially as I had major repair surgery which had the side effect of a trimming up a bit. Well, no more!!! Thankyou to all the posters here for helping me realize that a change is now here. Praying more for me as well,as others, and respecting what God provided for me….funds for my very expensive surgery….which I’m not making the most of. (just had to say it wasn’t lap-banding, but abdominal…I know….too much information!). Jesus retreated after very demanding times..our current Bible study, and I think there is a lesson for us there too, retreat and pray, rest and then think and pray before entering the arena again. Bathroom retreat can sometimes be the only way to escape, but sometimes that works when we need to get away politely! 😉

  10. Yvrloved says:

    I had a friend for ten years and I was a soul sister to her. We did things inside and out together. She has a history of dumping friends within three years she did three besides me. She started to date and I got a depression. She and her boyfriend decided to put me out of their life and go wrongfully gossip lies about me which list me more friends. Three years on I’m still trying to understand. What is Soooo wrong of me. I’m loyal,loving and I was always there when she called victim. So I think it’s wrong that these people can presume you as someone difficult. I was told from Jesus that we had to stick togethrr.,
    I had a mental breakdown where I didn’t know how to react because they made me further ill. I do t get this… If you want me to forgive I’m not someone emotional punch bag so every time you do that I just forgive??? I’m hurting inside does that warrant people telling me how I’m a low life when there is no quite the opposite? Angry because they lied and told people lies but oh they are ok playing victim. When I was the one who put them together?
    I feel shame,loneliness and isolation because they won’t allow me to voice my opinion and you all tell me off for being angry and move on and people Blane me non stop.
    How can I move on if you blaming yourself and not used to being loving.
    I don’t consider myself being difficult at all. I reached out offered forgiveness did everything and they act like I’m not good enough. Silent treatment is a wuss way of out not talking out indifferences.

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