How to Communicate with Someone Who Shuts Down

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We would all agree that communication is key in any relationship… whether in a marriage, dating relationship or with our children and other family members.  In addition, communication is essential on the job. We need to be open and honest with our bosses, co-workers and employees. Same goes for our neighbors and friends. Our doctors, religious guides and therapists.  To sum it up, good communication is beneficial in almost every facet of our life.

As important as communicating is, there are often breakdowns in communication from time to time.  These breakdowns create stress and frustration.  Like a vehicle misfiring, sputtering, knocking, and shaking… miscommunication is frustrating because it shows a relationship is not operating as smoothly as it should.   

Miscommunication causes the same misfiring in our families, jobs, communities, etc.  In addition to misfiring, lack of communication can also come from people who have completely shut down.  It's like a system that should be transmitting information but isn't, making it difficult to troubleshoot a problem.

This post will discuss how to effectively communicate with someone who shuts down.  Also, it will help you gain another perspective when looking to navigate this situation, giving you the knowledge you need to keep it from happening again.

What is Stonewalling?

When someone is stonewalling you, they are refusing to communicate or cooperate in bringing a resolution to a disagreement or circumstance that has occurred.  

This behavior is common in marriage counseling sessions, contract negotiations and legal circumstances. 

A person's body language can be a key indicator that someone is stonewalling.  Especially if it appears they are avoiding contact with you, while engaging normally with others in the room. 

Others stonewall by using deflection Deflection in a conversation indicates that someone feels the discussion with you isn't necessary or won't achieve anything.  So, they will give you vague answers to questions, refuse to answer questions or answer your questions with their own questions.  Experts say stonewalling tactics are for stalling more than for avoiding a person or situation. 

Some people just don't like a conflict of any kind.  For more on stonewalling, click here.

Personality Types Prone to Shutting Down

Anyone going through traumatic times in life can inadvertently shut down. However, here are the types of people most likely to do so:

  • Those who have feelings of nervousness, apprehension, and fear.
  • People with feelings of inadequacy.
  • People who are very sensitive to being spoken to negatively or having unfavorable judgment placed on them by others. 
  • Those who have a fear of rejection from others. 
  • Someone who is dealing with unresolved anger from past incidents and traumatic circumstances. 
  • A person who is simply having a bad day or rough week.

Just because a person shuts down on you doesn't make them a bad person.  Many are simply non-confrontational types and looking to avoid any type of conflict, rather than work through it.  So how do we deal with someone like this?

It begins by learning to identify what is happening and then following a few key steps to get through it.

7 Steps on How to Communicate with Someone Who Shuts Down

1.  Give them space.

We often expect others to be all or nothing and have little grace for inadequacies in their behavior.  But we all have good and bad days.  

When a person shuts down, try giving them space.  It may be that after a little while, they will come around, and you can effectively communicate and resolve any conflict. 

2 Show empathy and concern.

Suppose someone shuts down on you because of feelings of inadequacy, nervousness, or rejection?  In that case, it will put their mind at ease knowing you care that they are comfortable communicating with you. 

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When someone shuts down, they may perceive that you did something wrong… so never assume you are guiltless when a person closes themselves off.

Show some vulnerability by discussing how you can relate to their feelings, and maybe they will open up to you.

3.  Apologize, even if you've done nothing wrong. 

When someone shuts down, they may perceive that you did something wrong… so never assume you are guiltless when a person closes themselves off.  Most people have triggers, and if we aren't careful, we will intentionally push those triggering buttons, especially when a loved one or close friend shuts down.

4.  Express what it means to you to communicate effectively with them.

Communicate to the person you're trying to talk with about what you most appreciate about them.  For example, you may want to offer a sincere compliment to them and even remind them of a time when they helped you through a rough patch as well. 

If a co-worker has shut down on you, try communicating the mutual benefit of working together and effectively communicating.   Express sincere gratitude for what they bring to the table on the project and in the workplace. 

5.  Watch your tone of voice.

It’s just as important what you say as it is how you say it.  One way to have someone shut down on you is for you to use the wrong tone of voice. 

A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.  

A soft, gentle tone helps a person relax the guard they have up.  It also shows that you have a sense of value for the person. 

Harsh and sharp words and tone of voice can cause the person to feel looked down upon.  It may also anger them, and rather than communicating effectively, there is loud shouting and anger.  The emotionally charged conversation is counterproductive.

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Something I personally live by is to think about the response I desire to receive from a person before I say what I have to say.  But, in addition to that, my desire is to be careful to express myself in a way that the person hears my heart and my point of view.

6.  Use humor.

It is hard for a person to stay shut down when they are laughing.  So act goofy, tell a joke or do something unexpected to get a reaction from the person you're seeking to communicate with. 

7.  Do nothing and move on.

Sometimes their silence is all the communication you need.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  If a person feels you aren't worth the effort to communicate with and gives you silence or deflection, it may be best to move on and not force it.  Instead, see our blog about Warning Signs That Your Friend Doesn't Respect You.  It will help you gain some perspective on the situation as you decide what works best for you in this relationship.

It may be challenging, but you can also practice the No Contact Rule.

I know it may bother you not to get the closure you so desire, but it may be the best move for your sanity.  Check out this blog on 13 Steps to Not Let Things Bother You So Much for the kick start you may need to get it done.

Final Thoughts on How to Communicate with Someone Who Shuts Down

Please remember, there is no “one size fits all” answer to communicating with a person who has shut down or is stonewalling you.  As important as communication is to any relationship, or in the workplace, peace and harmony can't be forced.

Though it may be uncomfortable, tedious, lonely and stressful at times… you must try to be patient and wise when taking steps towards opening up communication again.  Don’t allow your own frustration to cause you to give up too soon on someone you deeply care about, or an outcome worth fighting for. 

To help you and your partner avoid any miscommunication in the future, use these SMART goals to improve your relationship.

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