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Last Updated on October 24, 2022 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
We all have to deal with difficult people. For the most part, they are just an irritant.
But some people go beyond that.
Some people are manipulative, abusive, and toxic. People like this thrive on conflict and drama and they will use you to get them. Behaviors like these are often a sign of narcissism and other forms of psychopathy.
Setting boundaries with these people is critical. Most of the time it’s best to just walk away.
Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. Like it or not, there are times when you have to interact with narcissists and other toxic personalities.
Fortunately, you can protect your personal space with a technique called “The Gray Rock Method.”
What is the Gray Rock Method?
The Gray Rock Method was designed to use in situations where you are forced to deal with people you would normally not want to be around. An annoying co-worker, for example, or a manipulative ex-spouse.
According to Dr. Ove Heradstveit, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, the Gray Rock Method is when you purposely make yourself uninteresting and unresponsive.
The point of “gray rocking” someone is to deny narcissists the attention they crave. If done correctly, you become no more enticing than a dull, gray rock. Thus, the name.
When you use The Gray Rock Method, you remove the “fun” of toying with you. Narcissists bore easily when they don’t get a reaction. They tend to move on in search of more appealing targets.
Erin Hendrickson, LPC notes that The Gray Rock method can be an effective tool for those learning how to implement and maintain firm, healthy boundaries with those individuals who are narcissists, or those with narcissistic tendencies.
“It is often a method I suggest using for my clients who have left a relationship with a narcissist and still have to endure SOME communication due to co-parenting requirements,” she says.
Ideally, the hard and firm ‘no contact’ recommendation for those leaving a partner with narcissistic traits, but may not be an option when having to co-parent.
Five Ways to Use the Gray Rock Method
It’s important to note there isn’t much research to support (or disprove) the usefulness of The Gray Rock Method. Results can vary wildly, so always be careful.
It’s probably best to speak with your therapist first before you do. He or she can provide additional insight into whether it is an appropriate strategy to consider. If you don’t have one, you can search for online providers here.
Having said that, let’s talk about the different ways to use The Gray rock Method on narcissists and other toxic people.
1. Don’t Reveal Your Strategy
First of all, it’s important that you don’t tell the person that you’re “Gray Rocking” them. If you tell them what you’re doing, you give them the incentive to take it up a notch.
The Gray Rock Method is kind of like Fight Club. And the first rule of Fight Club is you never talk about Fight Club.
The same thing goes for The Gray Rock Method. Never admit to Gray Rocking. Doing so defeats the purpose.
2. Keep It Short And Sweet
Toxic people thrive on chaos. Don’t feed them with your words and actions.
Limit your interactions with narcissists in particular and try to be as bland as possible. You can do this by speaking in a neutral tone of voice and make your responses short and sweet.
Use “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know” without further elaboration. Responding with “uh-huh” or “mmm” works, too.
Sometimes, things get complicated. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If you have to work on a project with a coworker or raise a child with a toxic ex-spouse, it takes a bit more finesse.
In these cases, respond briefly when you have to talk to them. Don’t include unnecessary details. End the conversation as soon as possible.
Work-related questions from a toxic co-worker should be handled matter-of-factly. Share only the information needed. No opinions. No emotion.
Co-parenting with a narcissist requires a similar strategy. Keep discussions limited to childcare, visitation, and logistical matters. Try to communicate on the phone or by texting. Limit face-face interactions.
3. Talk About Boring Things (When You Have to Talk at All)
Sometimes just saying “eh”, “mmhmm”, etc. just isn’t enough.
The toxic person can’t find out that you’re trying to Gray Rock them. If all they get are short, non-answers on a constant basis, they may suspect you are acting differently on purpose.
Let them think the problem is with you. Maybe you’re just naturally dull and unengaged. Be the opposite of what you would be on a promising first date.
Of course, not talking to them is the best option.
But when that isn’t possible, talk about boring things only. Bland subject matter with bland answers is the way to go. Stay away from hot-button topics. The weather is always good for that.
Finally, don’t ask the toxic person anything. Questions invite further interaction and betray interest.
If they keep trying to get a reaction, remember to detach yourself. Avoid “taking the bait”. This means ignoring accusations, anger, and tantrums.
4. Feed Them A Strict Information Diet
Knowledge is power, so don’t share any information about yourself. Anything you feed a narcissist is ammunition for them to use against you.
Don’t discuss your past. Don’t share your opinions. Avoid telling them about your personal life. Anything you tell them could be used against you later.
By restricting their access to knowledge, you protect yourself from further toxicity.
Whenever possible, avoid eye contact. It will help you manage your emotions when fending off their attempts.
Looking at something else is a helpful way to draw their attention away from you.
If you are at work, focus on your computer screen or your notebook while they talk to you. At home, check that dinner you have in the oven. In the car, fiddle with the radio station. Start googling things on your phone.
If there’s nothing for you to focus your attention on, turn your thoughts inward. Recall a pleasant memory. Remember your last vacation. Or think about someone you actually enjoy talking to.
Just don’t engage. That’s what they want.
Does the Gray Rock Method work?
This is the $64,000 question. Does The Gray Rock Method get results?
Hendrickson thinks it has some useful applications. “The Gray Rock Method can be a useful tool to maintain boundaries with a narcissist,” Hendrickson said. “Using it sends the message of ‘I see you, I heard you, but I am choosing not to engage with you emotionally.'”
She adds one caveat though: “Consistency is KEY. Any inconsistency will start the whole process over again. You’re basically re-training the narcissist that there is no benefit or reward for trying to cause conflict. If you can stay strong, the Gray Rock method can help decrease the amount of conflict with the narcissist in our life.”
It’s fair to say that the Gray Rock Method works… sometimes. As Dr. Heradstveit also points out, the Gray Rock Method is helpful when applied in the correct context. That is, when your motive is to keep another person from investing in you emotionally, and when there are good reasons to keep this from happening.
It is, however a poor method in many other types of relationships. You certainly don’t want to use this strategy with someone you are currently in a relationship with. It will make you appear aloof and passive-aggressive.
It’s also not a good idea to “gray rock” someone who gets violent. People like this don’t need an excuse to be abusive. They can find a way to get upset whether you are trying to ignore them or not. Narcissistic rage is a real thing, so exercise caution.
It’s best to avoid abusive people entirely.
People who thrive on drama may get frustrated when don’t get a response. This could cause them to escalate their behaviors in an attempt to get a response.
It should also be noted that Gray Rock is not a long-term solution. The best use of this method is to employ it when necessary. It’s particularly helpful in fleeting situations. A creepy guy hits on you in Starbucks. That sort of thing.
As always, the best way to deal with a manipulative person is to sever contact with them. This is not always possible, so Gray Rocking is a helpful “second best” option.
What to do when the Gray Rock Method doesn’t work?
There are a couple of different options, depending on whether you have to interact with the toxic person or not. No matter what, make sure you are safe. It’s also important to seek therapy for guidance and support.
If there is no reason to maintain contact with the person you are “Gray Rocking,” you should just cut them out of your life completely. Block their phone number. Block them on social media. Remove any other way they can get in touch with you. Never speak to them again.
If this person is harmless, that may be all you need to do. However, if they are abusive, or you fear for your safety, then seek help. Get a restraining order, hire an attorney, or involve law enforcement.
If you feel like the Gray Rock method is not working, there are a couple of things to remember:
- If the toxic person gets upset, then Gray Rock is actually working.
They may just be ramping up their behavior to get a response from you. In this case, you may only need to wait it out. It may take longer, but they will eventually get bored.
- You may not be able to cut contact permanently, but temporarily removing yourself from the situation if often the next best option.
And again, if this person is dangerous, seek help. This is critical.
And as always, whether the Gray Rock Method is successful, please seek therapy when you need it. It’s important to have someone to talk to who can help guide you through these situations.
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References and Research
- Gray Rock Method: 6 Tips and Techniques
- Dealing With a Manipulative Person? Gray Rocking May Help
- The Price and Payoff of a Gray Rock Strategy
- The Gray Rock Method is a Mental Model
Special thanks to Erin Hendrickson, LPC, and Dr. Ove Heradstveit, Ph.D. for contributing to this article.