Warning: Dead Silence Can Do Damage

Silence can be deadly.

It happened a number of years ago in a meeting. All those present had been Christians for many years. All were church leaders. One man present was having a difficult time on a number of fronts. He began to express this to the group. Finally he stopped talking. The group was silent. Finally the chairman said, “The next item on the agenda is ….”

The man who had been transparent about his struggles later said, “I won’t ever do that again. I won’t ever open up to that group again.”

Silence can be deadly.

• You pour out your heart to your friend in an e-mail after being betrayed at work. Your friend doesn’t respond. Several weeks later, you ask if she ever received your note. “Yes, I was going to write you back. I’ve been busy.”

• You write a letter of serious concerns to the leaders in your congregation. You never receive a reply.

• You express some deep personal concerns to your dad or mom in an e-mail. These were difficult for you to write. You never hear back from your parents

• You are being harshly chewed out by someone in front of a group of friends. Yet, not a single person says one word in your defense. They remain silent.

• You express an opinion in a class. The teacher doesn’t even acknowledge what you said. He is silent for a few seconds and then moves on with his material. For a moment you feel quite silly.

• You leave two voice messages on your friend’s cell phone asking her to call you back. You’ve learned that your father has cancer and you need to talk. She never calls you back.

In churches, most people are not mean and do not intend to hurt. (No, I am not naive. I know there are some very mean and cantankerous people who spend time in church buildings.) I am specifically focusing on people who have been hurt through the thoughtless passivity and silence of others.

• How do you respond at work when someone tells you that the weekend was difficult?
• What do you say when a friend tells you on coffee break that she has been very depressed lately?
• What do you say to a high school student who says that high school is horrible?
• How do you respond when a friend at the university tells you that he feels totally stressed out about what is going on back home?

“But I don’t know what to say.” That’s OK. So often I don’t really know what to say either. What you can do is actively listen. You can show interest. You can ask questions. You can show concern.

Anything but complete silence.

This silence communicates volumes if you are on the other end. Silence can cause another to feel not valuable. Dead silence leaves a person believing that her feelings or actions apparently mean little or nothing.

This is not about knowing exactly what to say when a person attempts to connect with you. However, respond with concern or compassion. Be interested. That might mean more than you realize.


What does it do to a person when his/her friends remain silent while he is being verbally mistreated?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

23 thoughts on “Warning: Dead Silence Can Do Damage

  1. Just reading your post brought back ancient memories about silent treatments endured – wrote a blog post about that a long while back. The silent treatment says so much about the character of the one dispensing it than the one being treated to it. I just pray that those on the receiving end of the silent treatment can forgive those who have hurt them, rather than let it make them bitter. Trusting they’ll learn empathy from their experiences!

    • Thanks Karin. You are right. Unfortunately choosing to remain silent at the wrong time does say something about us.

  2. Silence when being berated can communicate (even unintentionally) agreement or complacency. I’ve gotten to the place that I will speak up my true feelings even if I’m the only one to do so. Often, I’ve left meetings where after the fact people voiced their discontent but when they had their opportunity, they did not speak. My view is, don’t complain if you’re not going to do something about it. Whining and complaining after the fact does no good. While voicing your opinion may not change things, and in some instances could have negative consequences, I’d rather have my integrity knowing that I spoke up about unjust situations.

    Like Karin, this post brings back very recent events. I served for 2.5 years in a church as an elder. Recently some individuals that have been at the church while I was serving brought up the issue of women elders and whether it was biblical. Not only was I being re-nominated to the position but another woman elder was being nominated as well. One of people that brought up the issue e-mailed me after the meeting in which I and the other woman were voted in, e-mailed me to ask about the biblical justification behind women elders. She asked nicely and said she was willing to learn. However, considering that she and the other individual didn’t speak up any sooner than now and that the one person led me to believe at an earlier time that they had no problem with women elders, my antennae went up when I received this e-mail. Unfortunately, it was just days after receiving news that my father had cancer, so I was in the midst of all of that when I received the e-mail, which I communicated to the person and told them I would get back to them shortly. I responded within days of my first e-mail informing them of my father’s condition. That was late January. To date, I have never received a response from this individual. Nothing. Nada. Not an acknowlegement of my father’s illness nor of my follow-up response which I spent time putting together. Believe me, this silence has left a bitter taste in my mouth. In my mind, there’s no way this person can rectify this short of offering an apology.

  3. Pat,
    Your note illustrates this well. To communicate your father’s health situation (spending time on your response) and to receive nothing. No note. No phone call. Nothing. Wow.

    (So sorry regarding your father’s illness. I prayed regarding him and the entire situation after reading your note.)

    • Thanks, Jim. My father was diagnosed in late January and started several weeks of radiation after that. We went to the doctor a few weeks ago and it appears the tumor has responded positively to the radiation, so the doctor will not need to see him for 3 months. Thanks for your prayers.

  4. I think we are awkwardly silent becuase we don’t know what to say. We think we should be eloquent or understanding or perfect in our response.

    But sometimes, just a smile and a word that even says, “I don’t know what to say”, goes a long ways.

    • David, I really like what you said. A smile and a “I don’t know what to say” at the very least communicates that you would like to connect and that what that person said was worth responding to. Thanks very much.

  5. When we had a handicapped child a long time friend and family withdrew and it hurt. We later discovered they were more devistated with our experience than we were. We all learned a lot. We learned how to get comfort from Jesus and we learned not to be overwhelmed at the suffering of others because God gives each grace for his/her own need. That experience freed us to be with those in terrible situations and trust God is at work

  6. Wow, this is powerful. I hadn’t thought about silence like that before. In trying not to say the wrong thing, we have to remember to say something. Thanks for this!

    • Marc, you make a good point. Sometimes, in trying so hard to not say the wrong thing, we end up saying nothing at all. Thanks.

    • David, thanks very much for providing the link here to the 10 that were highlighted. I’m honored that this post was in that number.

  7. Jim – You’ve touched on something important here. Sometimes we don’t say anything because we don’t have the answers. But if nothing else, we can at least say, “I’m here.” I have had some situations recently where silence has been painful; I hadn’t quite articulated the cause, though. This post says it well.

    • Charity, you make such a good point here. To be fully present with another really says a lot. Thank you.

  8. How often I’ve done this without meaning to? I hope I will be thinking about this with every interaction, Jim. Thanks for the important reminder to listen and acknowledge what’s said, following up with concern and, if appropriate, more questions.

    • Thank you Ann. I have done the say thing. Quite often, I am contemplating what I should say or not say. Of course, the other person (not being a mind reader) is left with silence.

      Thanks so much for this comment, Ann.

  9. I wonder how often I’ve done this without intending to do so. This post is a reminder to offer an affirming response, instead of moving on in my own busy-ness.

    Glad to have found this post through The High Calling.

    • Jennifer, very good observation. I do think that many of us do this without thinking. I am trying to be more thoughtful in my response to people. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Oh gosh, that has happened to me so often, and I tell myself all the time “not to open up.” That’s one of my biggest reasons for not having comments on my blog. I look for approval through feed back often.

    Love the post.

    • Angela, thank you for your honesty regarding this. I suspect a lot of people can identify with you.

      (By the way, I just went to your blog. Very nice!)