Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 an Unresponsive Person

Ways to respond to "no communication"

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/unresponsive.htm

Updated  02-02-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers (a) perspective on "no communication," and (b) illustrates possible effective responses to someone who "doesn't communicate." It assumes you're familiar with...

      This brief YouTube video offers options for relating to "difficult people."


      Have you thought or said recently of someone "S/He didn't reply to my call / email / card / question? Have you tried to start a conversation with someone who responds with silence, grunts, shrugs, and/or few words? What do you usually feel with such an "unresponsive" adult or child? Are you ever "unresponsive"?

      Face to face, adults, kids, and infants unconsciously decode meanings from each other via words + voice dynamics + body language. So someone who is silent, motionless, and expressionless situationally or often seems "unresponsive." They may be dubbed inscrutable, unreadable, phlegmatic, unemotional, unavailable, guarded, and closed

      Early in life we're taught that ignoring other people is "impolite" and "disrespectful." So when we get "no response' from someone, we're apt to feel hurt, resentful, disrespected, frustrated, and perhaps puzzled. Some people are naturally taciturn and terse, and others over-wordy (verbose).

       Premise - someone may be "unresponsive" when s/he...

  • feels unsafe; and/or...

  • s/he isn't aware of any thoughts or feelings, and/or...

  • s/he literally doesn't know what to say or do (is "paralyzed"), and/or...

  • is distracted or overwhelmed by something, and can't say so.

Have you felt any of these recently? When these occur and the person doesn't tell us, we must guess what "no response" means. If we know the person well, we may guess accurately. If not, we risk mis-assumptions unless we verify them.

      People who often feel notably anxious, uneasy, or pessimistic with unresponsive kids or adults are apt to be shame-based or fear-based (psychologically wounded). Could this describe you? Such people are apt to assume "no response" means "I don't care about / like / respect / notice / you" instead of the causes above. That can cause hurt, resentment, distrust, anger - specially if they have reason t distrust the person.

      Premise - it's impossible to "not communicate," because we may unconsciously assume meanings from silence and an expressionless face and body. Example: if a good friend doesn't return your call, text, or email, you may assume that means s/he doesn't care much about you, or s/he's pretending to care. The truth may be that s/he had some trauma or became ill. Are you aware of how you decode silences or "no responses"?

      Considering all these factors, how can you respond effectively to an unresponsive person? If you know one, keep him or her in mind as you read these...

Response Options

  • Mentally review these basic options until they become a habit;

  • Use awareness to notice (a) when someone is "unresponsive," and (b) how you feel around them. Your emotions point to what you need.  Example: frustration points to a need to get information from the person, or to accept that you can't.

  • Identify what you need with or from the person, specifically - e.g. to vent? To offer feedback or confront? To cause change? To set or enforce a limit? To problem-solve? Something else?

  • Depending on what you need, select a response like these:

"(Name), when you can't or won't disclose what you're thinking and feeling, I feel ________."

"Can you tell me what you need from me right now?"

"When you answer me with just one or two words and no eye contact, I feel _________."

"If I'm doing anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, will you tell me?"

"I notice you need to be silent now."

"When you say 'I don't know' so often, I feel impatient and frustrated (or ________)."

"I notice you're breathing very shallowly. Are you aware of that?" (This can mute current emotions).

"Your voice is very flat and emotionless."

"Are you distracted by something now, (Name)?"

"What would you like to be doing now?"

"I noticed when you talk about ______, you become vey animated and expressive." 

      Notice the theme of these examples - brief, direct, respectful, and factual. Adapt this to your communication style in forming your own responses. Can you imagine how an unresponsive person would react to messages like these? Some people will "resist" - i.e. deny, argue, challenge, or shut down. Handle normal resistances like these with calm, respectful empathic listening. Then repeat your response, until your needs are filled or they change. 

      Another option...

  • If the person knows about personality subselves and is willing to explore their ''inner family,'' see if they have a Scared and/or Shamed Child, and protective Numb-er and/or Blocker subselves who are restricting their emotions and responses. If so, that can change.

Responses to Avoid

      If your true Self is disabled, your ruling subselves may react to significant unresponsiveness like these:

"Cat got your tongue?"  If said sarcastically, this can feel like a putdown.

"What do I have to do to get you to open up?" Disrespectful aggression.

"You're about as expressive as a tree stump."  A disrespectful putdown.

"Hello? Hel-loo? Anyone home in there?"  A lose-lose shaming question.

"(Name), you ever thought what the kids are learning from your silences, or how they feel?" Emotionally-loaded criticism, not win-win problem-solving.

"Getting you to talk is like pulling teeth!" Combative criticism and complaining.

"You're hopeless. I can't talk to you." A shaming "you" message.

Bottom line - you have many constructive response options if someone is silent or unresponsive with you. Keep the possible reasons for their behavior in mind - specially with kids. Avoid (a) assuming they're unresponsive "on purpose," and (b) jumping to conclusions about their intentions or attitudes.  


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social problems. This article offers perspective on "unresponsiveness," and illustrates ways to respond effectively to an unresponsive person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a genuine (vs. dutiful) mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, metatalk, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

  This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful    

  For more perspective and options, see response-options for people who are ''too intellectual.'' 

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