The Power of Silence in Therapy
Clients who have not experienced therapy before, in particular, may find it difficult to know what to do with the therapeutic space initially. They may begin with an awkward silence or express their embarrassment at not knowing how to say what they need to say. They may wonder about what they should say, how to say it, and what the therapist will think of them once this has been said. So, for the client who is unsure of therapy at the beginning, keep reading.
Silence is one of those occurrences in therapy that is a little like Marmite! You either love it or you hate it. This appears to be the thoughts of both psychotherapist and client. That is to say that I have found this to be the case, by asking people how comfortable they are with silence in therapy. The most typical response from clients is that they find silences, especially long ones, awkward for them. They usually feel as if they should know what to say or should have an agenda to talk about for every session. They can feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if they don’t always know what to bring to therapy.
Therapists can feel, or sense, the awkwardness from clients which can sometimes leave the therapist with the dilemma of choosing whether to end the silence by checking in with the client, or asking a question, or letting the silence continue until the client says something.
The Benefits of Silence
At times, clients can find silences awkward if they haven’t yet found their voice in life. For clients that are not used to having their opinions, thoughts or feelings listened to, it can sometimes be the case that they are not used to speaking up for themselves or allowing themselves to be heard. Silences in session can therefore actually afford the quieter client the space to be heard if they can first, own the silence without being afraid of it. For example, I had a client in the past who found it difficult to speak in session at all.
Being part of a large and opinionated family meant that he usually just ended up going with the flow, or agreeing with things to prevent an argument, or to save any conflict that would leave him feeling anxious and nervous. By telling him that I would not interrupt the silence but would allow him to come in on his own steam as I felt this would help him find his voice, he then began to take ownership of the conversation within the session. He would stay quiet for a time and then would smile before speaking and saying tentatively what was on his mind.
Once he got used to having centre stage so to speak, he reported that it was the first time he could remember that he’d ever really had complete quiet, or sole command of any conversation. He quickly got used to this, his tone of voice got stronger over time in sessions, and he found it easier to say what he needed to say in therapy. Once he realised that his time in therapy was a safe, genuinely non-judgemental space to speak within, he found some confidence to talk about issues that had been a burden for him for a long time.
This likewise aided him in speaking up at home at least every once in a while, when he felt strongly enough about something to have his opinion taken into account. So, I found that enabling clients to use silences meaningfully brought a positive and useful perspective to therapy for them.
Silences give clients space to process thought and emotion. Once clients get used to the idea that the silence is theirs to command, it becomes a therapeutic tool to develop their own opinions and serves to help them negotiate the social nuances of having conversation, such as speaking in turn without always being spoken over or being discounted in conversation. Clients therefore learn communication skills.
They get to hold their own autonomy, which is what we want for them, particularly after therapy has ended and they are gone back to their own lives. In the interim, while they attend us for therapy, therapists can use silences well, particularly for clients dealing with heavy trauma. Silence can give this particular client the space and time in a safe environment to gather their thoughts, work out how they feel, and what exactly it is they want to say, before talking about traumatic or distressing events.
Silence is equally useful in the last few minutes of a session, allowing clients the time to reflect on what has been discussed in therapy. From here they can ask questions of the therapist or put together what the session has meant to them for the day. At this point they may also name another linked topic that they may wish to discuss next week once they have thought about what they have been supported with in this particular session.
For clients who are nervous before coming to therapy or are unsure how to say what they need to say or are unsure how the therapist will perceive what they say, usually this feeling of nervousness and uncertainty diminishes once the working relationship develops, and trust has formed. The initial stages of therapy are usually the most awkward, though once a trusting relationship is built, silences are fewer. By the middle of therapy, the silences are more easily tolerated and may be viewed as easy silences by the client at this point. By this time the client will usually be at ease with the therapist and can speak his mind about what is happening for him within the silence more easily.
But How Long is Too Long for Silence to Continue?
An experienced therapist will usually know when silence has meandered on for too long. If the client is struggling, looks distressed, is moving around in the chair a lot (possibly meaning agitation), or expresses his awkwardness, then of course silence is not the correct course of action to continue with this time. If there are too many awkward silences within sessions, the client may be turned off therapy, view therapy as a waste of time, or feel that he is failing in the act of helping himself in therapy. He could likewise feel that the therapist is no good. So, it is important to correctly gauge as much as possible what is happening for the client at any given time.
What Silences Can Mean in Therapy
Much is happening for both the therapist and the client in the space between words. For the client, how he perceives the silence may well depend upon his experiences of silence in the past. For example, if as a child he was punished by the cold shoulder from a parent or guardian, he may wonder why he’s getting the cold shoulder from the therapist in session. He may wonder what he has done wrong in session but may not know how to broach this with the therapist.
Given that sometimes a client may not be consciously aware of his past traumatic connection to silence, he may not know why the silence is uncomfortable but may somehow feel that it’s his fault. For this reason, I have found it very important to always quickly get to know a clients’ past history. I will usually ask a client who is struggling within the silence, what was happening for them in the quiet? Or ask how they experienced the silence. I may ask them what the silence meant for them. They usually describe bodily sensations connected to a past event that they then begin to tell me about. They may say that they found it uncomfortable and that they were filled with uncertainty about what to say or how to use the therapeutic environment, in which case I can ask them what they feel therapy is about, or what they want from therapy?
For the aware client, that knows exactly why silence is not tolerable to them, we can begin talking about the event connected and can look at how the client was affected in the past and present and explore ways to use silence positively, thus lessening its negative effects in therapy. So, we see that silence can mean all manner of things, can be used in a multitude of ways in therapy, and can be used positively with experience.
The therapist will usually use the silence to gauge where the client is emotionally in session, and to track the clients’ perception of silence, at all times being aware of the position of power and powerlessness. The client usually sees the therapist as powerful while he is powerless. So, the therapist will at all times be careful to handle the client with care and respect while engaging with him. We see clearly here that silences are part of the social construct of meaning making both in therapy and in life in general.
The main point to be taken here is that with the right intervention from the therapist, silence can be used to help clients to explore themselves, to acknowledge how they feel right now in the moment, and to facilitate them with emotional regulation. Through talking about emotions, thoughts, and the past and present events connected to them that have been discovered through silence in the therapy room, silence becomes a powerful tool to help clients to get to know themselves and to help them explore what they want from their relationships and within their lives in general.
This article was written by Michelle Fowler, a newly qualified and pre-accredited psychotherapist at The DMC Clinic. If you have experienced or are experiencing any of the issues mentioned in this article, please contact the DMC Clinic to make an appointment with a counsellor.
Counselling Tutor (2022). Silence in Counselling. https://counsellingtutor.com/basic-counselling-skills/silence/#:~:text=Silence%20in%20counselling%20allows%20the,thoughts%20and%20feelings%20without%20distraction.
Brandsaeter, E, K., & Hauge, V, R, G., (2021). A time to speak and a time to keep silent: Psychotherapists perceptions of silence phenomena. https://ntnuopen.ntnu.no/ntnu-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2776105/no.ntnu:inspera:65731347:9129005.pdf?sequence=1