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In defence of silence

I have been meaning to write a post about silence for a while. This one is about the power of silence in the therapy room and beyond.

At a time where manipulative behaviours such as gaslighting and stonewalling are talked about at great length in the public sphere, it is easy for silence to get a bad reputation or to even be seen as a form of abuse. However, there is a big difference between giving someone the silent treatment as a way of dismissing their point of view and offering time to think and reflect in a warm and empathic manner.

There are two separate images that come to mind which may be helpful here. One is that of an impenetrable glacier wall that no word or action can move or change. This is the icy, defensive silence where we close our heart and ears to what the other person has to say.

The other image is that of a still mountain lake. The surface of the lake acts as a perfect mirror that allows us to see the beauty of our surroundings as well as our own reflection. It is a silence that is open, inviting and calming. Anything can be said and expressed, nothing is taboo.

It is this calming and empathic silence that I want to focus on. So much of therapy is based on it, and yet how little do we acknowledge its power and capacity for healing.

As a new therapist in private practice, making room for silence seemed like a very daunting task. I was keen to prove myself and to show to my clients what therapy could achieve. I felt the need to demonstrate my knowledge and expertise and that they were getting value for money.

Over a decade later, I am a lot more comfortable with silence. I have confidence in my role as therapist, seeing myself more as a facilitator of my clients’ process of making sense of their life. However, I still catch myself wishing I would have allowed for it more.

It takes courage to pause and give space to my clients, especially when they ask me to tell them what to do. Sometimes, it can feel uncomfortable to hold that reflective space as I am sensing my clients’ discomfort of sitting with their own thoughts and feelings.

At other times, I can sense my clients’ pain and despair in the silence. There may be no words to describe the magnitude of loss brought about by death or the separation from a loved one, and just the body communicates. These silences can be heavy, yet very necessary to process these strong feelings.

Especially nowadays, I believe that this is one of the vital functions of silence in therapy and beyond – learning to be with our thoughts and feelings. Many clients tell me that they are scared to be alone because they fear to get caught up in their worries or entangled in ruminations. They struggle to direct their mind and constructively attend to their feelings.

As a society, we have become so used to distracting ourselves with the Internet and different apps at our fingertips. This is why relearning to be still, to listen inwards, to notice and name our feelings can be hard. And yet, how are we supposed to make good decisions for ourselves when we are not even allowing these feelings to emerge?

Equally, a lot happens when we just hear ourselves talk. To tell our story, we need a listening ear, someone who cares about us and who tries to understand us without judging. Already by putting our thoughts into words, our perspective changes. We notice that certain things keep bothering us and that others deeply matter to us. We become aware of the connections between different events and experiences as we are constructing our narrative. All of this can only take place when there is attentive silence.

In my therapy sessions, I often feel torn between sharing observations that may be helpful and making space for my clients to come to their own conclusions. I know that those insights we come to ourselves are the most powerful and meaningful ones, and it is a joy to witness those lightbulb moments with my clients. However, this may mean holding back from directing the conversation or offering an interpretation and just trusting the reflective space that a friendly stillness creates.

How can these thoughts on silence be useful to you? On the one hand, they help to make explicit why therapy works. If you have been wondering whether therapy is for you, they may give you a flavour of what it could be like. If you are already in therapy, they may help to explain what your therapist is doing when they are silent.

On the other hand, the therapeutic relationship is only one among many; and what holds true for the power of silence in therapy also extends to other relationships. Empathic, attentive listening can be transformative and healing for anyone, whether this takes place in a friendship, a couple relationship or between parents and children. Sometimes, all it takes is a minute or two of sincere, open and warm silence to really hear what the other person has to say.


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