Silence in Counselling
Silence in counselling allows the client to speak about their issues without interruption (sometimes a new experience for them).
Silence also enables the client space to process their thoughts and feelings without distraction.
This helps them gain clarity on the difficulties they face and consider a possible way forward.
Use of Silence
Culturally we have been taught to be uncomfortable with silence; this can influence the counsellor’s use of silence and the client’s reactions to it.
New counsellors are typically uncomfortable with pauses, often rushing in to fill the gaps.
By doing this the counsellor assumes inappropriate responsibility for the counselling session.
The person-centred counsellor trusts that the client will work in a way, and at a pace, that is suitable for them.
The counsellor gives the client control of the content, pace and objectives.
This includes listening to silences as well as words, sitting with them and recognising that the silences may facilitate the counselling process.
Silences occur for a number of reasons
For the counsellor it can be:
- A deliberate use of silence to encourage the client’s self-exploration
- A deliberate use of silence to encourage the client to “carry the burden” of the conversation
- An organisational use of silence enabling the counsellor to collect her/his own thoughts
- A natural ending to a phase of discussion
For the client it can be:
- A time to make connections, to wait for words or images to occur
- A space in which feelings can be nurtured and allowed to develop
- A space in which the client is able to recover from “here and now” emotions
- An attempt to elicit a response from the counsellor, such as satisfying a need for approval or advice
- An organisational use of silence enabling the client to collect her/his own thoughts, remember events, assess values and reflect on feelings
Silence in Our Culture and in Counselling
Silence can feel uncomfortable, heavy and unnatural in our culture, where it is often referred to as ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘awkward’ in the social context.
However, in the counselling context, silence takes on a particular and important role, as suggested by the definition above, facilitating the client’s movement and journey.
While using silence in counselling may seem unfamiliar and daunting to someone just starting counselling training, experience both within skills practice and on placement generally shows student counsellors just how powerful silence can be.
It can be of real benefit to clients and the therapeutic relationship.
"The counsellor gives the client control of the content, pace and objectives. This includes listening to silences as well as words, sitting with them and recognising that the silences may facilitate the counselling process."
Benefits of Silence to Counsellors
1. Reinforcing Person-Centred Value
First, silence encourages the client to explore themselves and reinforces the basic principles of person-centered counselling.
Thus, if a client expects their counsellor to provide advice and answers, silence – perhaps accompanied by a warm, accepting smile – can be used to demonstrate that there is more to be gained from looking within at self than by viewing the therapist as an expert.
This links with the core condition of unconditional positive regard, trusting that the client will – given the core conditions – find the way that is best for them.
2. Encouraging Autonomy
Silence gives the client autonomy within the session, so that they set the pace for the counselling.
If the counsellor instead asked a question, they would be leading the counselling session, and potentially taking the client away from their own focus of attention and feelings.
3. Enabling Counsellor Processing
Silence can enable the counsellor to collect their thoughts and feelings, and to process what the client is saying.
There are times where the client will bring something and the counsellor needs time to understand this and how it might feel to the client.
Immediately launching into reflection or paraphrasing can distract the counsellor from fully absorbing what the client has shared.
4. Marking a Transition
The counsellor can use silence as a natural ending to a discussion, or to some material that the client has brought.
The client may have reached a natural end on that particular area, and wishes to move onto something different. In this case, silence serves as a type of punctuation, allowing the client the space to move to new material.
"There can be just as much communication, power and meaning conveyed during silence as there can be during conversation."
Benefits of Silence to Clients
1. Making Connections
Silence gives the client time to make connections – to find the words, images or feelings they are looking for.
It may be the first time – especially for a client new to counselling – that they are putting names to feelings.
While they may be familiar with the physical sensation that the emotion brings – such as a knot in the stomach or a tightness in the chest – it can naturally take time (especially for a client earlier in Carl Rogers’ seven stages of process) to find the words to describe this.
2. Nurturing Feelings
Silence can provide a space where feelings can be nurtured and allowed to develop.
It is through processing their material that the client moves from rigidity to fluidity, experiencing an organismic shift and so a moment of movement.
3. Fully Engaging with Emotions
It may well be that the weight of the material that is being brought is emotionally heavy: the client may cry as they feel the pain, which – previously suppressed – is now experienced in its full intensity.
Silence allows the space for such emotions to be felt fully and processed.
4. Enabling Client Processing
Just as counsellors sometimes need silence to give us time to collect our thoughts, and to be able to stay fully with the material that is going on, the same is true for the client.
Importance of Body Language during Silence
We speak about different tones of voice in both written and spoken language, but silence has different tones as well.
Silence in counselling is not about just being physically present yet quiet.
It requires full presence with the client within that silence – in other words, psychological contact (one of Rogers’ six necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change) must remain in place at all times.
Maintaining this presence and connection can allow the therapist to pick up on the client’s feelings, by observing their body language. There can be just as much communication, power and meaning conveyed during silence as there can be during conversation.
Appropriate and Inappropriate Use of Silence
While silence is invaluable in counselling, it 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. (Rogers, 1942: 165)
Thus, Rogers acknowledges that silence can feel uncomfortable at times, especially before the therapeutic relationship is established.
To use silence effectively, it is necessary to have developed relational depth with the client, and therefore to understand what is going on during the silence for the client:
The lengths of silences and their possible meanings must be weighed against the client’s unique experience of them … Complete and prolonged silence on the part of the client may indicate severe pathology. (Feltham & Dryden, 1993: 177)
Personal Development on Silence
It is important for counsellors to practise using silence in order to enhance their comfort with this, and – if necessary – to use personal therapy and/or clinical supervision as appropriate to explore any difficulties experienced with holding an appropriate silence, based on our own past experiences of silence.
Rogers, Carl (1942), Counselling and Psychotherapy, Houghton Miffin Co
Feltham, Colin, and Dryden, Windy (1993) Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr