What to Do When They Never Want to Talk About It

Whether with a partner, friend, or family member, you probably encounter times when there is something you want to talk about, but the other person is unwilling. In these moments, you likely feel discouraged, frustrated, or disconnected—wishing for healing, repair, clarity, or completion. 

Rather than analyzing what is wrong with you or another person in situations when something seems stuck, it's often helpful to ask, “What kind of support is needed?” You can sometimes get clarity about the support needed by asking the other person to share their reason for not wanting to talk. Unfortunately, even this might be off limits for some, in which case you are left to make guesses. Making guesses about what's going on for them isn't about fixing them or convincing them to share; rather, it’s about creating connection in your own heart and getting some sense of what might be supportive. 

Depending on the other person's willingness, you might make these guesses with them or simply silently in your own heart. Here are some common reasons that someone might refuse to talk about something and some guesses you might make:

  • The event or topic triggers so much shame that they become emotionally flooded when they turn their attention toward it.

  • They fear blame and criticism from you. 

  • They can't imagine that talking about it would be helpful in any way.

  • They can't imagine that any requests or new actions would arise from talking about it.

  • They don't believe that healing is possible.

  • They don't trust that you care about their feelings and needs.

  • They don't trust that you see their goodness.

  • Their own sense of their innate goodness is perceived as threatened when the topic comes up. 

  • The event was traumatic and has been dissociated from to meet needs for safety and self-protection.

If you are able to make these guesses with them and they are willing to respond, you have an opportunity to affirm their experience. Affirming the reason for their refusal is an important step toward healing and connection. Affirming phrases often sound like, “That makes sense to me,” or “I get it,” or “I value you taking care of yourself.” When you affirm their reasons for not talking, they don't have to send energy into defending. This softens the space between you.

If you think you are unable to offer these affirming responses, you may need to back up a couple of steps and work with someone outside the situation to process your own experience and receive empathy. When you are tense and reactive about the event or issue, it will be difficult to create enough safety and support for the other person to engage with you about it. Your work is to release any attachment to the strategy that you believe will achieve healing and completion with this person. It also means finding resources outside of the situation to help you with your own healing and sense of completion.

If the other person is willing to engage with your guesses about why they don't want to talk and you are able to affirm their responses, then you have an opportunity to ask them what kind of support they need to help with the obstacle they identified. This is a best-case scenario but probably an unlikely one. What is typically more helpful is to affirm their reason for not wanting to talk and then to let that conversation go for the time being. This is a demonstration of respect for their experience. It also offers consideration for the likelihood that even broaching the subject is triggering and that they can only tolerate so much time spent even close to that topic. 

When the other person refuses to engage in dialogue about their reasons for not talking, it is still helpful for you to make guesses about support on your own. As you make these guesses with compassion your heart softens and you naturally connect with what might be supportive. 

Here are some common forms of support relative to the list of possible reasons for not talking:

  • Shared humanity, hearing how others have made the same mistakes or met the same challenges

  • Receiving empathy from a neutral party

  • Receiving acceptance, often met through frequent genuine smiles, appreciation, affection, and compassion in challenging situations

  • Focus on success, learning of examples of specific strategies that others have taken to heal and move forward in a new way in similar situations

  • Receiving consideration for their own feelings and needs, is often met by empathy, guesses about what would work best for them in any given situation, cheerleading autonomy, and making a clear distinction between unwanted behaviors and acceptance of feelings and needs

  • Identifying and affirming good intentions, especially when things don't go well

As you review these possible forms of support, you might find that some resonate with you. This is a good reminder that you don't have to put off your own healing and inner work around a particular event or issue when others involved refuse to talk about it. The healing work you do naturally contributes to others in the situation whether this is ever a verbal exchange or not.

Perhaps the most important variable in situations like these is your own willingness to seek out healing for yourself and to cultivate compassionate patience for the other person's process. This sometimes means letting go and grieving the kind of connection you long for with them. 

Practice

Take a moment now to identify something that you never wanted to talk about with someone. Use the process of making empathy guesses outlined above to find clarity about what purpose this resistance served for you and what kind of support was helpful.