Silence: Awkward or Helpful?
I recognise that silence can feel uncomfortable, heavy, and really unnatural. If we look to our culture, that’s no wonder: it’s common to hear people talking about ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘awkward’ silences, even when with good friends. Suddenly, nobody knows what to say, and both people’s minds are whirring, trying to find words to fill that silence.
But we’re not talking here about silence during a conversation with a friend; we’re talking about silence as a skill in a counselling setting – within a therapeutic relationship, and for the sole benefit of the client’s movement and journey. This is a very different kind of silence, it’s a silence that we need to understand and practice.
Learning to Love Silence
When I mention silence to my beginner learners, who are just starting their journey into counselling, and set them the task of discussing in small groups what silence means for them and how they think it is appropriate in a counselling relationship, I rarely get more than five to ten minutes of feedback. But interestingly, when I give that same topic to my diploma learners, who are now approaching qualification as counsellors, we can happily sit and speak for an hour or more on the power of silence. This is because by now, they’ve been in practice and they’ve experienced the real power of silence within their placements; they’ve seen how silence benefits the clients and the therapeutic relationship.
What is Silence?
‘Silence within counselling has been defined as the temporary absence of any overt verbal or para-verbal communication between counsellor and client within session.’
Feltham and Dryden (1993)
When looking at this quote, it is 100% accurate. Yet the quote alone doesn’t describe what silence is – it’s so much more. Silence is more than just a lack of any words being spoken, and during silence, communication does not stop. In fact, communication can be enhanced during a period of silence.
It helps to look at silence through an experiential point of view as opposed to just an academic point of view. We can do this by thinking about how silence helps the listener, as well as the speaker.
How silence helps the listener:
Silence encourages the client to explore themselves and reinforces what person-centered counselling is all about. So a client might look to us, and we would use silence to reflect that back, in effect saying: ‘No, you look yourself. I’m not the expert. I’m not here to guide you and give you advice, this lies with you.’ For me, this links clearly to unconditional positive regard, to trusting that the client will find their own way. So if they look at me expectantly, I might use silence with a warm, accepting smile. The body language used by the counsellor within that silence makes all the difference.
Silence gives the client autonomy within the session, so that they set the pace for the counselling. If we jumped in and asked a question, we would be setting the tempo of the counselling session, or leading the client somewhere else.
Silence can enable you as counsellor to collect your thoughts and feelings, to process what the client is saying. There are times where the client will bring something and I, as the counsellor, really do need a moment or two to understand what that is, in order to be with them. So, silence is a great place to do that. If I immediately launch into the skill of reflection or paraphrasing, am I allowing myself as the counsellor to fully absorb what it is that the client has shared?
The counsellor can use silence as a natural ending to a discussion, or to some material that the client has brought. Maybe the client has reached a natural end on that, and wishes to go somewhere else now; a little bit of silence is almost like a gear change, allowing the client the space to head off and pick up new material.
How silence helps the speaker:
To find the words, images or feelings they are looking for. Remember that this may be the first time – especially for a client new to counselling – that they’re really putting names to feelings. For them, it may be a knot in their stomach or a tightness in their chest, and now they’re trying to find the words to describe that. Silence gives them the time to really look and find the words, so they can share that with you as their counsellor.
For me, this is about process – so important in counselling. The client brings material, shares this with us, and we look at it together. Through processing the material, the client moves from rigidity to fluidity, experiencing an organismic shift, and so a moment of movement. No process ever happened when words are being spoken: words may lead to the process, but the process itself happens only in silence.
It may well be that the weight of the material that is being brought is emotionally heavy: tears are streaming down the face of the client as they feel the pain, which – previously suppressed – is right there in the room, in the here and now. Silence allows the space for those emotions to be felt fully and processed.
Just as we as counsellors sometimes need a little silence to collect our thoughts, and to be completely with the current material, the same is true for the client. Silence gives the client time to ‘get everything in order’.
Tones of Silence:
We speak about different tones of voice and different tones in language, but silence has different tones as well. Silence is not about just being there and being quiet. Silence is about being 100% present with the client within that silence. We ‘listen’ to the silence – just as we listen to the client’s verbal communication. Much of our communication as human beings is wordless; it’s about body language. So when silence arrives within the counselling relationship, communication hasn’t stopped. Communication continues.
For example, have you ever been in an argument with a loved one where you stop talking to one another? Or where one person is trying to restart conversation, and you’re not answering? Think of the power and the message that is being broadcast in that silence. It can be just as powerful and meaningful as words.
Using Silence Appropriately:
However, don’t forget that silence must be used appropriately. Silence can sometimes feel uncomfortable and embarrassing for the right reasons.
‘In an initial interview, long pauses or silence are likely to be embarrassing rather than helpful. In subsequent contacts, however, if fundamental rapport is good, silence on the part of the counselor may be a most useful device.’
Carl Rogers, 1942.
So, even Rogers says that it’s ok for silence to feel uncomfortable at times, because it’s an effective tool only when used appropriately. To achieve this, you need rational depth – in other words, to have built a really good rapport with the client.
Getting Comfortable with Silence:
As I have shown, we need to allow silence as counsellors. We can do this only if we practice doing so. I implore you to take silence into your next skills session and to work on it really hard. Practice it, hone it, and watch the power of silence unfold.
Silence is an incredibly powerful skill. Yet I know it to be an underused skill, because of what it brings up for us as therapists. But remember that this whole journey of becoming – and then of being – a counsellor, is about us exploring self and the things we struggle with.
Feltham, Colin, and Dryden, Windy (1993), Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr.
Rogers, Carl (1942), Counselling and Psychotherapy, Houghton Miffin Co.