If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Don’t feed the trolls.” People who enjoy doing harm like to see that they’re getting to you. Grey rocking is a way of making sure the trolls (in this case, the harmful people or interactions you encounter in the real world) go hungry.
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Clinical psychology fellow Brianne Markley, PhD, explains what the Grey Rock Method, or grey rocking, is, how to use it in your interactions with manipulative or abusive people, and what makes it effective in some (but not all) situations.
“Grey rocking basically means disengaging from emotionally toxic interactions,” Dr. Markley explains. “However you choose to do it, you’re choosing not to respond or engage with an individual who is emotionally volatile — you’re making a conscious effort not to enter into that dynamic.”
At this point, chances are you’re thinking back on certain relationships or conversations from your past. Have you grey rocked somebody? Has somebody ever grey rocked you?
Odds are the answer is yes on both counts! You might not have a manipulative or abusive bone in your body, but we all have moments or relations where we … aren’t our best selves. So, it’s quite possible you’ve been grey rocked in those situations and didn’t even realize it. That’s because grey rocking isn’t obvious. And that’s by design.
As the name suggests, grey rocking is a way of making yourself boring, inconspicuous, unemotional and uninteresting. Dr. Markley lists a few common ways of grey rocking:
This is probably starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? While they aren’t exactly the same thing, grey rocking is definitely reminiscent of stonewalling.
The difference between grey rocking and stonewalling is in the intention. When we stonewall somebody, we’re either doing it because we can’t handle the difficult feelings we’re experiencing or because we’re being manipulative: We’re trying to punish somebody with our silence.
Grey rocking isn’t a punishment. It’s a defensive tactic. It’s the emotional equivalent of playing dead so the would-be predator loses interest and moves on.
Of course, playing dead doesn’t always work. And neither does grey rocking.
Should grey rocking be your go-to strategy for getting out of uncomfortable situations or relationships?
As with most questions about human behavior, the answer is: It depends.
“Grey rocking can work in some situations,” Dr. Markley says, “And it can be particularly effective in situations with individuals who have a certain pattern of behavior — like people who thrive on chaotic and explosive interpersonal interactions.”
People with personality disorders or narcissistic tendencies often need to get an emotional rise out of you. That’s why they communicate the way they do. They may not even realize it themselves, but they’re agents of conversational chaos. And they’re trying to manipulate you, like putty in their hands.
But if you’re doing your best impression of a rock, you aren’t giving them what they’re looking for.
Dr. Markley says that managing and minimizing your reactions may help slow down or disrupt an emotional rise in the short term. But it might not be the best long-term strategy.
“There might be other effective strategies. Moreover, grey rocking can take a mental toll on anyone if they have to do it frequently enough in their relationships,” she continues. “After all, just because you don’t offer an emotional rise while grey rocking doesn’t mean that you aren’t feeling one.”
“You need to think about whether, or how, you’d want to continue that relationship,” Dr. Markley recommends. “And it’s really important to work with a mental health professional to process those thoughts and feelings so they have somewhere to go. They don’t deserve to be held in and kept to yourself.”
Working with a qualified mental health professional is especially important if you conclude that the person you’ve been grey rocking should (or must) stay in your life.
“A therapist or counselor can help you find healthy coping outlets and engage with positive support systems. That’s a really important strategy for managing relationships that might take an emotional toll on you,” says Dr. Markley.
As with all conflict-management strategies, there are some situations where grey rocking definitely isn’t your best move. If you have any concerns for your physical safety or well-being, suddenly changing your behavior could put you in danger.
If you’re experiencing abuse of any kind — be it physical, verbal, psychological or sexual — your best bet is to talk to a provider, a mental health professional, a friend or a loved one. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to somebody you know, avail yourself of the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s phone, text and chat options. They can help you make a safety plan and connect you to any resources you may need to end the relationship.
Grey rocking is the real-world equivalent of the social media advice that you shouldn’t “feed the trolls.” Instead of letting somebody manipulate or harm you — instead of giving them the big, dramatic, emotional reactions they crave — turn into a rock. We’re talking stone face. Little, no or only the driest, least interesting communication you can offer. You may even ignore or avoid them. Just like a social media troll, a toxic person will likely lose interest in you and move on to somebody else.
Grey rocking is a pretty effective strategy, but it isn’t ideal for every situation, and it can be difficult to sustain. After all, you aren’t a rock. You’re a person. And all those feelings you’re hiding from the other person are still there.
And of course, if you have any concerns about your safety, you should seek help from a mental health professional or somebody you trust. They can help you formulate a safety plan before making any big changes to the way you interact with somebody.