How to jump-start conversation after Radio Silent

We've all had phone calls we decided not to take because we just didn't feel like answering the phone, or discussing something unpleasant, or we're just annoyed because someone continues to call.

Have you ever considered what it's like for the person calling, what they might feel, as a result of ignoring the phone call? Certainly you've been aware of this in situations where perhaps you intentionally decided to ignore the call in spite of them, perhaps a telemarketer that routinely calls.

In other situations, when the situation is unpleasant, you might merely be trying to avoid the situation for the time being. Or, perhaps you're overwhelmed and just don't have the time to answer the phone. Of course in these situations, we're much more likely to not consider the consequences of not picking up the phone.

We won't realize that inaction affects the person calling us, perhaps in a negative way. Flip the scenario around, how did you feel the last time you tried to get in contact with someone that never answered calls and didn't return them either?

Chances are, depending on the significance of what you wanted to discuss, your mind started to wander and search for the hidden meaning. The trouble is your mind tends to come to rather dramatic conclusions, conclusions that are far afield from reality. Conclusions that fester and eat away at your focus.

This isn't an innate defect; it's just how the mind works. It seeks out answers to questions it often cannot answer, and is happy to come to conclusions to fill in the gap.

When someone goes "Radio Silent" in business, it can be challenging to reboot the conversation simply because we're not certain what is really going on, we don't want to make the situation worse, and we can't find out what is going on until we restart the conversation. It's a catch-22.

It doesn't matter if it's your customer that goes radio silent, or if you're the customer and someone you depend upon goes silent, these situations are frustrating.

Here are 9 steps you can take, which are often overlooked in the heat of the moment, to reboot stalled communications.

#1 - Do not infer what the lack of communication means. It's tempting to believe that the lack of communication is a sign of a problem and the to go searching for what that problem might be. While it's true, there often is a problem involved, especially if there was a dispute leading up to radio silence, chances are you can't diagnose the problem unilaterally.

What you can do unilaterally is come to some rather interesting, emotional conclusions about what it means. For example, you might assume that the other party simply doesn't care about you, or they don't care about the relationship, or that you're obviously not a priority, or that they're out to find someone else to work with, that they're scheming about the best way to take advantage of you. In reality, the issue may not even be on the radar of the other party.

Or quite the opposite you might just assume the issue isn't important to them and you might conclude you should ignore it as well. And while you're ignoring the issue, they're having an emotional breakdown trying to figure out what it means that you're not communicating with them.

It's best to check the tendency to infer what is going on, and instead stick to the facts. The only way to stick to the facts is to reopen communications so you can obtain more information.

#2 - Are they really not reaching out to you? When was the last time they had any communication of any form with you? What was it, when was it, what was it about?

It may be that they've sent an email recently, about something unrelated, and you just dismissed it because it's not about the issue at hand. In this situation, communications haven't entirely been halted, perhaps just partially.

Do some research about the frequency of contact; ask around if other people are communicating with the other party. It's very possible the lack of communication is a matter of perception. If you broaden your perspective of what has been communicated, you might change your opinion about the situation.

#3 Are you reaching out to them? I always hesitate to ask this question but I'm constantly reminded by daily events how much people hate to pick up the phone themselves.

It always seems that when phone calls have to be made, especially for complicated matters, people in my family ask me to do it. I don't know if it's the time on hold that they hate, if they just don't like to talk to people, if they don't like to confront issues, or if they just don't have the time. But it seems like many people simply hate initiating communications.

The same thing happens in business. Have you tried to reach out to them? Or, are you simply staring at the phone, waiting for them to call you? If it's the latter, then, pickup the phone or send an email.

Even better, if you can, go meet with them in person. It's easy for other people to ignore a phone call or email, especially if they are busy. But when it comes to face-to-face meetings, people generally tend to commit to being available and present for the conversation.

I can't help but imagine that in many situations where communications stall, that both parties are simply waiting by the phone for the other to call them.

#4 – If they aren't calling you, are not answering your calls and aren't returning your calls, then you have to ask yourself, why is it important to re-open communication.

If it's a trivial matter, perhaps it's a good idea to give it some time and try again in a week if it's still on your radar. For example, if you're in the middle of a project with a customer and you're making good progress and then all of the sudden they haven't got back to you about some information you need to continue, waiting a week might be fine.

Things are going well, so it's not likely that the silence is anything you caused or you should be worried about. The amount of time you wait depends on the situation.

What I would do, when communication re-opens, especially if it was something unrelated to your project, is to discuss the lack of communication and express how it would be helpful in the future to simply get a quick email letting you know not to worry and when things will pick back up again. That's common decency for both parties in business to show toward one another.

If it's not a trivial matter, then you might decide to try further interventions to re-open communications. Especially if you feel there could be disastrous consequences for failing to do so. Know what it's worth to you to re-open communications. And, what it's worth to your customer. Know what it may cost both of you. This is great information to feed into the impetus to re-open communications.

#5 – At this point, you've exhausted your attempts to re-open communications yourself, however you can take advantage of a neutral third party. Is there someone that could mediate the situation and get communications flowing once again?

Perhaps there's someone that is outside of your organization and your customer's (or vice versa if you are the customer). Someone that both of you know and trust. Someone that you could turn to, that has the ear of someone inside your customer's organization.

Perhaps there's someone inside your customer's organization that isn't involved in the current discussion. If they are detached from the situation, they may be able to leverage an internal communication channel to help.

If it's your customer that has gone silent, you had better have a legitimate concern not just for your own sake but also for your customer's. This should be the focus of the conversation with the mediator, helping them understand that you're concerned about the negative consequences of the situation.

Conversely, if you are the customer, if you really want to open things up quickly, you certainly have your own concerns, but if you keep in mind the combined concerns of the people you work with, you will have a much higher chance of opening things up.

#6 – In any healthy business relationship, both sides benefit. The sum of the relationship is greater than the individual contributions, for both parties. It's a win-win relationship. If you don't have this type of relationship, chances are that's why there's conflict and I don't think you're going to be as successful at opening things up.

However, assuming it's been a win-win relationship in the past, if you emphasize that, you should be able to leverage mutual interest to start a conversation. This is what you especially need in the case of a mediator so they don't have to take sides. And even if you don't use a mediator, you can use this yourself to spur conversation.

For example, if you're an accountant and your customer fell off the radar, keep in mind they rely upon you to keep their business operating. And, you rely on them to keep yours operating as well. If you take the attitude, that you can replace any one of your accounting clients, or conversely, the customer sees you as interchangeable, then all bets are off. But if you've developed a healthy relationship, you both benefit from continuing that relationship.

Without each other, neither of you would be in business. You, as the accountant, ultimately help your customer produce whatever it is they make, for example if they publish a magazine, you are a part of what's necessary to publish that magazine. The magazine is the end product that satisfies a need in a market, it's what you both are ultimately working toward.

Remind yourself and the other party, how your combined efforts are what makes both of you successful and then point out what might be threatening that combined effort as a means to spur conversation.

#7 – If you really want to open things up, you can chose to make yourself vulnerable. Especially if you're in a position of power, the other party may simply feel overwhelmed. Perhaps someone feels overly dependent upon you. They may not be sure how to proceed.

If you don't cede some of your power, the other party may never talk.

When I say make yourself vulnerable, it's not actually as bad as it sounds. One of the best ways to make yourself vulnerable is to simply ask for help. Asking for help is temporarily putting yourself beneath someone else's social status. So, if you're in the position of power, with less to lose, asking for help can level the playing field or flip it around.

Here's how you do it: "Hey Jane, I need your help" You can elaborate about what if you want, but you can also leave it at that. Perhaps you really feel something has gone wrong and you're afraid it's your fault. In this case you could add, "We haven't talked for three weeks. I fear that I've slighted you and I would like to know if I have and have the opportunity to apologize."

#8 – When communications do open back up, use an objective framework to address any conflict that surfaces.

Perhaps it was all in your mind and you find out that reason why communication stopped was because of something entirely unrelated.

Perhaps you didn't do anything wrong, you might find out the other party is apologetic because they dropped the ball.

Perhaps you find out that the other party was offended, felt slighted, etc.

If a problem surfaces, be careful not to jump to emotional conclusions. You could easily squelch the progress you've made. Speak objectively about observations, about needs, and about what is important to both of you. Deal with the conflict in an objective fashion.

#9 – Once you re-open communication make sure you put some process in place to routinely touch base to ensure communication doesn't grind to a halt once again. Make sure the underlying cause of the halt is discovered and then make sure that you put something in place so the situation doesn't relapse.

The greatest danger in re-opening communications is that the salient nature of the radio silence spurs people to action, followed by inaction that leads to silent relapse.