Silence in talk therapy?
Silence may seem like a strange concept to highlight in a treatment based around conversation.
Still, for anyone who’s taken part in a therapy session, you know that silence is a big part of conducting or attending a therapy session.
“Silence is golden” may be an obvious cliché with which to start this article, but it holds true.
Even though silence may be uncomfortable, it can be a valuable tool for facilitating growth in treatment.
In this post, we discuss the use of silence in therapy. Readers on either side of treatment will learn about the clinical utility of silence, what silence communicates, and why therapists are sometimes so darn quiet.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
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The Importance of Silence in Therapy
All of my therapists have been incredibly quiet clinicians. At times, this has felt maddening; at other times, it’s been a great relief. As it turns out, these therapists weren’t trying to drive me crazy. They were using silence as a tool to facilitate my growth and allow me to work things out for myself.
We usually think of silence as the absence of talking, but silence is a positive event. It is an activity in itself that is relevant to the therapy process (Knol, Koole, Desmet, Vanheule, & Huiskes, 2020).
Psychotherapy is a unique form of conversation, one that allows for extended periods of silence. If the clinician implements silence skillfully, it can encourage clients to reflect, connect with their feelings, and continue their train of thought (Knol et al., 2020).
Silence plays a structural role in therapy, just as it does in every conversation. This role is usually to separate different topics within the discourse between speakers.
In many forms of treatment, the client usually starts the session by bringing an issue to the therapist’s attention. They discuss this initial topic for a while, often branching off into other subtopics. When silence falls, this usually signifies a change from one issue to the next (Knol et al., 2020).
Silence occurs not only between topics, but also within them. This “intra-topic” silence is a therapeutic tool that therapists can use to help their clients go deeper into the material by allowing them to think about what to say next.
This silence is a moment for reflection, where the client gets to let their psychological processes happen without the input or interference of the clinician (Knol et al., 2020).
Silence can also be a therapeutic event within itself, a moment in which the client can dig deeper into the emotional experience they are having in the session (Knol et al., 2020).
Therapists can choose to turn silence into a therapeutic event by bringing it to the client’s attention in the conversation. By talking about the silence between them, the silence itself becomes material for the therapy.
As we will explore, there are many uses for silence in therapy. It is more than just the absence of talking. It is one of the most vital aspects of treatment.
How to Use Silence in Therapy Sessions
Silence is a powerful tool for a therapist to have at their disposal.
A good time to use silence is if a client brings a problem to the session, and the clinician does not know what to say.
Sometimes not saying anything can be more effective than saying something mindless, because it gives the client a safe space to reflect.
How a therapist thinks about silence depends on their theoretical orientation. Therapists’ use of silence in psychotherapy includes:
- Conveying empathy
- Facilitating reflection
- Challenging the client to take responsibility
- Collecting their thoughts before responding (Valle, 2019)
Another way to use silence is to help the client reflect on a situation in which they feel overwhelmed by input from significant others in their lives.
An example would be a much-beloved person who is thinking about taking a job in a faraway city. This person’s family and friends have many opinions about the move and have let them know it. By the time the person reaches therapy, they have so many other people’s ideas in their head that they cannot get in touch with their feelings.
Allowing this person to talk and reflect and then sit in the silence of their feelings can be enormously helpful for sorting through the noise of others’ opinions.
One more way to use silence in therapy is for meditation. Many clients want to learn how to meditate, but they cannot find a quiet space or bring themselves to seek silence in their everyday lives.
As a therapist, you can use the controlled space of your office to help the client comfortably experience the silence of meditation.
When to Use Silence as a Counseling Technique
A simple answer: probably not at the beginning.
Therapists usually make sure there is a solid therapeutic alliance before using silence in their therapy sessions (Valle, 2019).
Educating the client on how and why they use silence can help ease the client’s anxiety. It would be strange and ineffective to show up to a meeting with a new therapist, only to find that they were entirely quiet from the very beginning.
Additionally, therapists typically use silence more frequently with specific clients. Some therapists note that it is a more effective tool with higher functioning clients, finding it less helpful or even harmful with psychotic, highly anxious, or angry clients (Valle, 2019).
Highly talkative clients may benefit from using silence in a session, but clinicians need to gauge if clients are talking so much because they are highly anxious. Here, psychoeducation may be critical.
Therapists may use silence as an invitation to reflect. It is up to the clinician to sense these moments and extend the invitation for silence by either sitting quietly or explicitly encouraging reflection.
Such a pause is beneficial after a therapist has responded empathically to the client’s revelation of a challenging subject (Valle, 2019). This silence gives the client another moment to feel and react to what is happening in the session.
Timing and alliance are everything here. If the therapist uses silence without skill or sensitivity, the client may feel this as distance, disinterest, or disengagement (Valle, 2019). Every client, alliance, and session are different. Therapists shouldn’t be afraid to use silence, but they should explain their approach and work to repair rifts if the attempt does not go well.
Handling Silences That Feel Awkward
When you think about it, therapy is an awkward way to relate to someone else.
You can notice this quickly in the reactions of a new client.
When you open the floor to someone who has never been to therapy before, there are two common reactions: the person will talk and talk, filling the space with their words, or a stark opposite, when the person may have no idea what to say and sits silently, waiting for you to say something.
As much as we talk about improving our therapy skills to help clients, it is essential to remember that the client must have the skill to actively take part in their treatment. Like with any skill, the client’s ability to get the most out of therapy requires practice and time to develop.
When encountering awkward silences at the beginning of a therapy engagement, it is important to remain patient with the client, who is probably flexing these therapy muscles for the first time.
Therapy is also awkward because people are generally uncomfortable talking about themselves, especially with strangers and in the depth required for treatment. They may be afraid that their therapist sees them as self-absorbed or boastful, especially when they say something positive about themselves or how others perceive them.
If the client voices any of these concerns, it is important to normalize the reaction so the client can feel comfortable enough to keep going.
However awkward you may feel in this situation, it is important to stay composed and calm.
Avoid filling the awkward silences with your unpolished thoughts. Suppose you are anxious during silence and jump in to end it. In that case, you may signal to the client that something is wrong when it is quiet, which may make them feel more awkward during the silences than necessary. This response could encourage them to talk endlessly to keep the conversation going, which essentially eliminates the space needed for reflection.
Practicing Silence in Group Therapy
Silence in group therapy can perform many of the same functions as silence in individual therapy: providing space for reflection, allowing room for mindfulness practice, and compelling clients to speak through the sheer awkwardness of silence.
However, the context of group therapy is unique in that clients experience it in the company of their peers. Therefore, there are some opportunities for togetherness that individual therapy does not provide. Silence, which is often thought of as isolating, can be an experience that brings the group together, as each client sits and reflects on their thoughts.
In group therapy, silence can play an important role in progressing the conversation by giving each party the time to think and respond (Valle, 2019). Many people feel awkward in moments of silence around others. They may fill the space with their talk. For individuals with this issue, group therapy can help them be more comfortable and reflective during periods of silence.
Silence can also be counterproductive in group therapy.
Although members can learn and grow vicariously through other group members’ work, they are more likely to benefit from the treatment if they are verbally engaged during the session (Lieberman, Yalom, & Miles, 1972).
Silence can also be a sign of resistance or disengagement, but it’s important not to jump to this conclusion. It can take considerable time and effort for a group to be cohesive enough to keep up a proper therapeutic dialogue in which group members interact with and help each other.
When silence is the norm or the quality of the silence is impenetrable and stifling, it can signal group dysfunction (Wood, 2016).
If your group starts silent, do not despair. There are many things you can do to help improve the cohesion of your group, which we discuss in our Ultimate Group Therapy Guide.
The ultimate text on group therapy is The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy by Irvin D. Yalom and Molyn Leszcz (2020). Within its pages, you’ll find many ways to navigate group silence effectively.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
The Positive Psychology Toolkit is full of tools to help you cultivate your listening skills and use silence in therapy more efficiently, helping your clients make and enjoy quiet time.
Here are some relevant tools for using silence.
Creating Quiet Time
Some clients seem incredibly uncomfortable with silence during a therapy session. These may be people who do not take any time in their daily lives to experience quiet.
This tool helps you and your client set aside time to experience silence during the day. The tool provides a framework for structuring interventions centered around silence in a session.
Listening Without Trying to Solve
It can be challenging as a clinician to listen to someone’s problems with openness and compassion. It is easy to give in to anxiety and a misguided sense of duty by offering advice or trying to solve the problem for the client.
Sometimes the most helpful intervention is to practice a particular type of listening, allowing space for silence and ambiguity. This tool can help you cultivate this type of listening, which can be helpful in both your clinical work and your interactions with close friends and loved ones.
The other side of silence is speaking. We have all said things we’ve later come to regret. Often this can be magnified when embodying the role of the therapist.
If you have been using silence in your work, then the words you say will be incredibly weighty since you will be speaking less. Use this tool to help yourself practice mindful speaking in your work or to help your clients cultivate this skill in their everyday lives.
Mindless Versus Mindful Listening
This tool is another mindfulness practice that helps develop a sense of inner calm and present moment awareness. Practicing mindful listening can allow you to be truly present with your client. It can also be a valuable practice to help your clients develop deeper connections with significant others in their lives.
Practicing Empathic Listening
There are an incalculable number of practices that can improve your listening skills. In empathic listening, the skills you will improve are pausing, paraphrasing, and reflecting.
This tool can help build your empathic skills and strong therapeutic alliances with clients.
Relevant blog posts
What Is Psychodynamic Therapy? 5 Tools & Techniques
Psychodynamic therapy is a treatment that started with Sigmund Freud and is still used today in many forms. Practitioners of psychodynamic therapy are experts in using silence to help their clients. This article offers five tools to use in your practice.
Psychoanalysis: A Brief History of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory
If you go to a psychoanalytic therapist, you will probably be struck by how little they speak. When they do speak, the power of their words is evident. Psychoanalysis is also the first psychological treatment, and understanding its history can help put today’s therapy in context.
What Are Distress Tolerance Skills? Your Ultimate DBT Toolkit
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is not a treatment known for its use of silence. Still, it has something to offer in helping clients tolerate silences in therapy and their everyday life.
If you or your client has difficulty sitting in silence, you may want to consider some DBT skills of distress tolerance. They can help you ride out uncomfortable experiences and use silence to your advantage.
A Take-Home Message
In therapy, silence is much more than the absence of talking.
It is one of the foundational elements of making treatment work.
This article has broken down the different ways you can use silence in your clinical work to help connect with clients, help clients solve their problems, and help improve their mindfulness skills and comfort with ambiguity.
If you find yourself chatty in the therapy room, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are speaking with purpose. If not, consider practicing silence in your own life and transferring your newfound skills to the therapy room.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more tools, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 350 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Knol, A., Koole, T., Desmet, M., Vanheule, S., & Huiskes, M. (2020). How speakers orient to the notable absence of talk: A conversation analytic perspective on silence in psychodynamic therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.
- Lieberman, M. A., Yalom, I. D., & Miles, M. B. (1972). The impact of encounter groups on participants: Some preliminary findings. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 8(1), 29–50.
- Valle, R. (2019). Toward a psychology of silence. The Humanistic Psychologist, 47(3), 219–261.
- Wood, D. (2016). On working with opaque silence in group psychotherapy. Group Analysis, 49(3), 233–248.
- Yalom, I. D., & Leszcz, M. (2020). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (6th ed.). Basic Books.