Q: "Until two weeks ago, I had a nice working relationship with “Kate,” my administrative assistant. Then she suddenly stopped talking to me. Now she will only ask necessary business questions. Kate is fine with everyone else in the office, but she won’t even look at me or say goodbye at the end of the day. When I ask Kate if I’ve done anything to upset her, she says no. I’ve tried small talk, but that only makes her clam up more. I have absolutely no idea why she’s acting this way. Any advice on getting her to open up?" Perplexed Manager
A: People who use the silent treatment are deeply afraid of conflict. Their actions clearly convey anger, but when asked what’s wrong, they invariably reply “nothing” in a frosty tone.
The target of this tactic faces an impossible dilemma: a problem clearly exists, but there’s no way to resolve it. Continued attempts to placate the passive-aggressive pouter will just reinforce the behavior. So the only way to end this silly game is to stop playing.
If Kate were a coworker, I’d say ignore her foolishness and go about your business. However, as her manager, you must put an end to this childish mime act.
For example: "Kate, I know you're upset, but I have no idea why. If you’d like to tell me, I’ll be glad to discuss your concerns. But if not, we still need to communicate normally. So would you prefer to talk about the problem or just return to regular communication?"
If Kate still insists that nothing is wrong, simply say "That's great. I'm glad to know everything’s okay." Then drop the subject, resume your normal relationship, and ignore any pouting.
Kate’s sulky behavior should soon disappear. But if not, treat it like any other performance problem. Kate needs to learn that mature professionals don’t act out their feelings like three-year-olds.