During my Graduate School Program, I took a class called Counseling Process Lab or “CPL” as it was commonly called. This class was painful but priceless. It taught us the skills necessary for individual therapy sessions and allowed us the opportunity to experiment on our classmates before we recruited other persons in the community to be our clients. Our sessions were taped so that it could be reviewed by our Professor so that we would be aware of the areas that we needed to grow in.
One of the first things we were asked to do while we experimented with our classmates, was to practice silence. We were not to engage the client in much discussion, instead we were to give minimal encouragement, preferably non-verbal. I did not know how difficult this would be at first, but after practice, it became one of my favorite tools in my therapy-toolkit.
When I began my Internship, I had a lot of practice with real clients. I was able to develop treatment plans, lead groups and have individual sessions. I was also able to get comfortable with being silent with clients. This time, there was no one to review my tapes. I was on my own with a Supervisor to consult with.
As I think about silence and how it impacts therapy, one client immediately comes to mind. This particular client was very resistant, refused to share and was more interested in knowing about my life than talking about the issues presented in session. One day, I asked the client to talk about the resistance and the client refused. We sat for 10 minutes, no words. Eventually, after a deep sigh, the client began to share, and even though it was minimal, it was progress.
I am grateful to be comfortable with silence as I have seen how powerful it can be, even with the most resistant clients. Silence allows the clients to think, to sit with their thoughts and build confidence and courage to share. That period of silence may be the time that the client is taking to practice in their mind how to reveal something hurtful, something traumatic or maybe something that they have never told anyone before. It might be the time that they are preparing for their breakthrough. As the therapist, we don’t need to ruin that moment with a constant need to ask questions.
In a recent 3 day seminar that I attended with Dr. Stephanie Covington she reminded our group that it is important to not only be comfortable with silence but to also remain present in the moment with the client. When silence becomes a part of our individual or group session, it is not the time to think about our grocery list, what we are having for dinner or about the oil change that you need to get next week. Instead, it is the time to pay attention to the client, to maintain eye contact and read non-verbals and body language. Dr. Covington reminded us that it is possible to use silence in a therapeutic way so that although the clients may not have much to say, they can at least sense that you are present in the session.
Another important thing to be mindful of, is that moments of silence may indicate that the client is experiencing an overwhelming emotion. It is important to screen for suicidal or self harm thoughts if the clients have a history or if they revealed in session that they have been thinking about it. At times, silence can be dangerous. It is important to pay attention to the words and body language. This is why being present is so important, even without words.
Have you used silence in therapy? Have you found it helpful or harmful to the therapeutic process?