Silence in the therapy room can be both profound and challenging. For therapists, working with clients who fall into silence presents a unique set of considerations. Instead of viewing silence as a hurdle, therapists can transform it into an opportunity for deeper exploration and connection. In this article, we’ll delve into strategies and insights for therapists working with silent clients, fostering a therapeutic environment that encourages meaningful dialogue, even if that dialogue is unspoken.
Silence can take various forms in therapy – it might be a brief pause, an extended quietness, a client’s reluctance to verbalise thoughts and emotions, a shutdown where a client feels ‘silenced’ or a regressive ‘stuckness’ where an inability to speak is experienced. Rather than interpreting silence as a lack of engagement or resistance, therapists should consider it as a communication style that holds its own significance. Silence can be a protective shield, a means of self-reflection, or even a way to test the therapist’s response.
Building Trust and Safety
Creating a safe and trusting therapeutic space is crucial when working with silent clients. Silence should not necessarily be viewed as a lack of safety to speak, conversely, regressive silences may be a sign that the client to date has felt safe enough to attach deeply enough that regressive and re-enactive material manifests in the work. That said the safety of the relationship may have evoke the transferential lack of safety felt in previous key relationships. So we can not assume that silence is either an outcome of a lack of safety nor a sign of safety. What we can assume, is that safety and the subsequent trust that comes from that will be important to navigating, processing and giving narrative to the silence in order to understand its therapeutic importance.
Therapists can develop a sense of safety when silence enters the therapeutic encounter by acknowledging the silence without judgment, expressing openness, and assuring the client that they can share at their own pace. The therapist will need to use a lot of skill to read non-verbal cues as to the internal processing of the client, attuning to the rhythm and tone of the clients in the moment felt experience to inform an oscillating approach between allowing the silence ,and penetrating the silence.
Allowing the silence provides a respectful space for introspective clients to ‘think their own thoughts’ without interruption. Having this opportunity within the company of another person can be quite a rare and profound experience. Whilst, equally, it can become hard for silent clients to ‘break the silence’. It is like the silence takes on a presence of it’s own, and one not all client’s feel they have the right, permission or confidence to break. By choiceful, gentle, attuned and rhythmic penetration of the silence the therapist offers out a life line to clients who are feeling lost, adrift and unsure how to return to connection.
Most therapists are well attuned to non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures which can offer valuable insights into the client’s emotional state, as well as accessing the unconscious communication avenues of transferential and counter-transferential material.
Therapists benefit from using and trusting their senses to observe the silence and collect information much like a detective looking for clues . What does it look like? ie, is the client looking downwards? are there micro-expressions that look like they are busy thinking? or are they staring out of the window looking lost? Are there any sounds within the silence? ie, tapping of feet, clicking of nails, a clock that suddenly seems excessively loud? What does it feel like? ie, is the client holding their body tense, or do they appear to have relaxed muscle tone? are they stroking a cushion or other sensory soothing? What does it literally feel like for the therapist? What is the emotional atmosphere of the room? The answer to all these questions and more tells of the profound content that can be found within silence. In fact, so often silence is so full of content it actually is experienced as therapeutically ‘loud’.
Relational Observation and Mindful Inquiry
The above described observation of clients within silence can be described as ‘relational observation’, quite literally the observation of how a client is relating within that moment. And the richness of the information that comes from such observation offers much content for mindful therapeutic inquiry.
Gentle and mindful inquiry is key when engaging with silent clients. Instead of bombarding them with questions, asking gentle questions that invite reflection and curiosity can help them understand their silence and communicate verbally if they wish to, or feel they can. In practice, this may sound like:
Therapist: I notice you are quiet, and by observing you I notice that you look like you are very busy inside of you despite how quiet you appear on the outside, is that the case?
Client: *looks up and nods, eyes look sad*.
Therapist: You look sad, do you feel sad?
Client: *Nods, and a tear rolls down a cheek, and splashes onto their lap.*
Therapist: **waits, allows some silence**
Therapist: This looks really painful, and you look so alone in this pain. It makes me wonder if this is a familiar feeling for you?
Therapist: *allows silence*
Client: I used to sit on my bed for hours in silence, alone with my feelings. No one ever came to check if i was ok.
Therapist: *allows silence*
Therapist: so it makes sense that when you feel really vulnerable, you revert to that sense of being very young, very alone and continue to manage your feelings as you always have, inside and unspoken.
Client: nods, another tear
Therapist: *feels an emotional connection, despite the continued silence*
But not all silences are the same, another example may look like this:
Therapist: You seem very quiet today, i’m wondering what is different?
Client: *shrugs and looks out of the window*
Therapist: *allows some silence*
Therapist: It appears hard to look at me, is that right?
Therapist: *senses an air of hostility, and feels slightly on edge*
Therapist: I’m wondering if i got something wrong for you in our last session?
Client:*shrugs, and looks down to the floor*
Therapist: *allows silence*
Therapist: If there was something I got wrong for you, I’d really want to understand as you look really hurt. I know I am making some assumptions but it just feels like there is a block between us that isn’t usually present.
Client: *silent, but does not move*
Therapist: Allows the silence
Client: last session you said i’ve been doing well and maybe its time we review the work, so i guess that’s it, i open up and now you chuck me out.
Therapist: Oh my goodness, i’m so sorry that’s how you heard that! I do apologise that may have been clunky of me and a bit ‘therapist talk’. By review, i genuinely meant, look at what we have achieved so far, and what we want to do next. Not ‘lets end’, but i completely see why it might have sounded like that to you. Would it help if i explained a bit more about what i was thinking?
Client: eye contact, eyes widen, nods.
As you can see in these two distinctly different examples, silence can contain almost anything, but there are clues to be found in the observable information around the silence. We do not want to assume anything about the silence, but we do want to use our observations as cues to be checked along with timely pacing and rhythmic attunement.
Silence in therapy is not a roadblock but rather a pathway to deeper understanding and connection. By embracing silence, therapists can facilitate a rich and transformative therapeutic experience for their clients. It’s through patience, skillful inquiry, and the creation of a safe and trusting environment that therapists can unlock the potential within the unspoken and guide silent clients toward healing and self-discovery.