- People make similar mistakes that are not so obvious when trying to engage someone who doesn’t want to talk.
- Considering the audience and previous interactions with them allows us to predict how conversations will play out and make informed decisions.
- Good timing is observing the other person's mood and state of mind, and getting their consent before launching a question or statement.
Most people are familiar with the frustration of trying to start a conversation with a spouse, teen, or young adult child who doesn’t want to talk. Invariably, people make similar strategic and psychological mistakes that perpetuate resistance and disconnection but are not so obvious. It’s telling that there can even be the impression of having carried out the recommended approach, while a closer examination of what was said reveals the subtle but fatal flaws and blind spots that led to defeat.
What goes wrong in these attempts?
1. Poor timing
Poor timing is a common cause of failed communication. It’s natural to respond to our own needs and timing, rather than consider someone else’s. Also, thoughtful timing is hard because it means constraining our own impulses and tolerating frustration. But tolerating frustration in the service of growth and mastery is better than the frustration that comes with a repeated lack of success that reinforces a sense of helplessness.
Common parent examples of poor timing:
- Asking a child or teen questions in the car on the way home from school, or right when they walk in the door.
- Going into a teen’s room unannounced and beginning a conversation, or approaching them when they’re absorbed in something more interesting than you without asking if they have a minute.
Poor timing is pursuing a conversation, as in these examples, when it’s clear that the other person is not even registering that you’re speaking—which can happen with a child, teen, or spouse.
Common examples of poor timing with a spouse:
- Talking about a loaded topic without having prepared.
- Engaging someone who is angry, irritable, or overwhelmed.
Good timing involves observing the other person’s mood and state of mind, using this information wisely, as well as getting the person’s attention and consent before launching:
“When is a good time to check in with you?” or “Text me when you have 15 minutes. I want to check in with you.”
2. Having a conversation when angry or harboring other feelings
Feelings form the metacommunication or melody behind the words and can make or break how communication plays out. We are wired to regulate one another in this way (Porges, 2009).
Feelings are instantaneously transmitted on a neurobiological level through tone, how something is said, posture, and facial expression (Porges, 2009). This often overwrites words in determining the message that is communicated.
Think about how our tone of voice affects whether a dog reacts to what we say by being scared, excited, or happy regardless of the words we use. If we say, “You’re a good dog” in a harsh, punitive way, the dog will receive the angry message. Well, that’s how people are too.
Frustration, hurt, insecurity, and anger are common reactions to the pain of feeling shut out, rejected, and helpless. These feelings can manifest in various indirect ways often without awareness; for example, by being withholding, unfriendly, tiptoeing around the other person, or "forcing it” with chit-chat.
Though "invisible," such behavior patterns come across as conspicuously loud, creating an insidious, palpable vibe that permeates the relationship and sabotages connection.
The positive corollary of emotional contagion (Herrando, C., & Constantinides, E. 2021), however, is that being grounded and holding your own with a calm, firm steadiness can help modulate a moody acting out person—by lending your regulated frame of mind. This involves stepping back using breathing or other techniques to restore the equilibrium required to then observe your thoughts and feelings rather than engage with them or be overtaken.
3. Using triggering language
“We need to talk.”
This announcement is rarely followed by something good and evokes anticipatory anxiety and dread in almost everyone, triggering the instinct to run away.
“You need to talk to me.”
Telling someone what they need invites a control struggle, tempting oppositional responses like: “You don’t know what I need.” Further, this statement is actually a disguised expression of the speaker’s own frustration. It is actually you who needs them to talk. Resorting to emotional coercion with an unenforceable implicit command when feeling powerless creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, "proving" your powerlessness.
4. Ineffective questions that can backfire
“What are you thinking?”
“How are you feeling?”
If you reflexively use either of these questions to engage in conversation with someone who doesn’t want to confide in you, isn’t tuned in, or doesn’t have the vocabulary for or comfort with feelings and internal states, you will get the all-too-familiar frustrating perfunctory response, or dismissive shrug: “Fine,” “Nothing” or “I don’t know."
Why do some people have a negative reaction to these “normal” questions?
Chronic resistance to these conversation starters can be motivated by psychological dynamics; for example, the need to be separate to protect one’s autonomy and sense of self. Being avoidant and prickly serves as an unconscious defense in the service of keeping you at a safe distance.
This type of issue can be part of a normal developmental stage, or a defense learned from childhood experiences of feeling controlled and a lack of respect for one’s autonomy. When these dynamics are at play, such questions feel intrusive, as if you’re trying to get inside their head (which you are) in the guise of caring.
You can comment on how the other person is coming across to you rather than ask a question (no answer required) —provided it is stated in a way that supports the other person's autonomy.
“I’m not sure if this is how you actually feel (respectful, non-coercive, allows space for their view) but you're coming across (non-imposing, focuses on your perception) as disinterested right now."
5. Leading the witness: Being disingenuous
Our biases, feelings, and opinions are usually already known by those close to us regardless of whether we explicitly state or acknowledge them. As a result, family members may already be on the lookout for the hidden criticism or feared opinion they correctly sense is there—especially when it is disowned—seeking evidence or validation. (For more on duplicitous communication, see "That's an Ugly Shirt... Just Saying.")
Further, our true opinions and feelings inevitably are exposed through how we ask a question or make a statement, particularly when we cannot find a path to direct, open communication.
With “questions'' that are actually accusations/criticisms in disguise, the underlying message is registered instantaneously by those on the receiving end. Being disingenuous and denying what you really think not only is unconvincing but is experienced as insulting, confusing, and/or infuriating to the listener. This intensifies conflict and, in effect, operates as a distraction from the intended topic of conversation.
Examples of commentary disguised as a question:
“Do you really think doing that is a good idea!?” or “Why would you choose Boston University over Penn!?”
“I’m sure you put some thought into that decision." (Respectful, validating)
Then, while maintaining your emotional boundary, ask a neutral, respectful question that does not impose any covert agenda.
"What are the advantages you thought of with B.U.?" or "What factors did you consider in making your decision?”
Regardless of whether you get an answer, this language creates a safe, respectful atmosphere and stimulates the other person to reflect on their own.
The problem with “why” questions
Many questions beginning with “why” do not yield an answer even when they are real questions, and not veiled accusations: Most people don’t have an accurate read on what made them do or not do something - and such questions can elicit confirmation bias and confabulation (Nickerson, 1998) or “I don’t know.”
(To spouse) “Why don’t you want to talk about how it went with Jim at the game?”
“I hear it was an exciting game.” (Starts the conversation by connecting and leveraging the other person’s interest)
(To teen) “Why were you driving over the speed limit?”
“I am aware that you were speeding. I know you have your own views (validating, reduces conflict) about the speed limit. But I get scared for your safety—that’s why you’re losing car privileges.”
We can pre-empt default patterns and be smart and strategic, rather than instinctive. Instinctive “approaches” that obstruct progress are often rationalized as “normal” questions or statements.
Persisting in failed methods is common and caused by a variety of issues such as misdiagnosing the problem, rigid thinking, habit, pathological certainty, lack of awareness of an alternative or how to implement it, and unquestioned assumptions about other people's mindsets that mirror one's own internal experience (projection). But each repetition of a negative behavior sequence not only strengthens the neural circuit of an unwanted pattern but squanders an opportunity.
Simply considering your audience and previous interactions is a tool that enables people to predict how a conversation will play out and make more informed decisions. Thoughtful preparation for challenging interactions increases our chance of success and allows us to feel more confident.
Being deliberate and grounded versus reactive also restores the balance of power in relationships, containing the other person’s acting out. Though being prepared requires some “work,” the payoff is feeling more in control and an improved atmosphere in your relationship.
Herrando, C., & Constantinides, E. (2021). Emotional Contagion: A Brief Overview and Future Directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.712606
Nickerson, R., 1998. Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), pp.175-220.
PORGES, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76(Suppl_2), S86–S90. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17