What is Stonewalling? - Dignify
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What is Stonewalling?

Tuesday, August 8, 2023 - Dignify

Have you ever been in a situation where it seemed like you just couldn’t get through to someone? Where no matter what you did or how you said something, they just wouldn’t reply to you or acknowledge what you were saying? What you may have been experiencing is called stonewalling.

Stonewalling describes a state in which a person “shuts down” in response to a conversation. People typically express stonewalling behavior when they feel overwhelmed or exceedingly frustrated. Stonewalling can take many forms, but all of them involve the person withdrawing from the conversation. Dr. John Gottman, a leading expert on the topic, explains that stonewalling behavior includes becoming completely unresponsive, turning away, acting busy, obsessive behaviors, or plainly pretending that the person they’re talking to isn’t there (Lisitsa).

Stonewalling can occur for any reason, and it may be intentional or unintentional. Intentional stonewalling happens when a person has deliberately decided to stop communicating for one reason or another. Meanwhile, unintentional stonewalling occurs when someone shuts down as a part of a “fight or flight” response (Betterhelp). While one is perhaps less problematic than the other, the unfortunate fact is that they both cause an equal amount of distress.

Researchers identified that stonewalling makes it innately harder for people to calm down because it places them in a state of physiological arousal. In a 1985 study conducted by Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson, it was found that persistent stonewalling led to decreased abilities to process information, solve problems, and listen to and empathize with others. That same study found that 85% of men in heterosexual relationships have stonewalled their partners. Further yet, they found that stonewalling behavior in women is more likely to predict divorce (Lisitsa).

As you can see, this behavior is very common, so it’s no wonder that it also creeps its way into the workplace from time to time, especially when there’s conflict going on. And when it does, the effects on the wider organization are drastic. In a sense, stonewalling is a form of conflict avoidance. You may recall that conflict, when handled in a healthy manner, nets organizations massive benefits across all aspects of what they do. They innovate more, they collaborate better, and they have tighter relationships. Meanwhile, unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict, such as stonewalling, can prove dangerously harmful to an organization. Edie-Louise Diemar notes that conflict avoidance can actually result in increased turnover due to emotional exhaustion and other negative impacts on organizational culture.

It goes without saying that, as a leader, it’s important to be highly aware of when someone (or even you) may be stonewalling. Set the example for your team by always being open to communication, even when the going gets rough. If you struggle with stonewalling yourself, emulate those around you who you know are great at identifying and resisting such behaviors. Remember – to become a great leader, you need to be a great follower as well.

Because stonewalling can take many forms, it may be particularly difficult to identify, especially to a third party or an outside observer. But generally, look for signs of someone becoming emotionally and/or physically disconnected from the situation at hand. In the workplace, it may look like any of the following (and more):

  • An employee refuses to continue participating in a meeting where differing opinions are being expressed
  • An employee avoids one-on-one contact with another employee for one reason or another
  • An employee refuses to face a difficult conversation, instead choosing not to communicate
  • An employee distracts themselves or behaves dismissively when others are speaking to them

In the next article, we’ll cover what actions you can take to address stonewalling behavior in yourself, in others, and for your team in general.

“Stonewalling: A Form of Emotional Abuse” [Article]. Betterhelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/relations/stonewalling-ways-to-deal-with-it/ [Accessed July 12, 2023]

Diemar, Edie-Louise. “4 types of conflict HR should know about” [Article]. 29 April, 2021. HRM Online. https://www.hrmonline.com.au/uncategorized/4-types-of-conflict/ [Accessed July 12, 2023]

Lisitsa, Ellie. “The Four Horsemen: Stonewalling” [Article]. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-stonewalling/ [Accessed July 12, 2023]

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