The Importance of Silence in Therapy

Silence in talk therapy seems like a contradiction. Yet, an important part of the empathic process is holding the space or creating quiet moments for your client. It is in these times when less is said, clients and counselors can have the most profound insights. This pause allows your client and yourself time to process and integrate relevant psychological material.

In Hill, Thompson & Ladany, research was conducted on the use of silence in therapy: “Eighty-one therapists reported they used silence to facilitate reflection, encourage responsibility, facilitate expression of feelings, not interrupt session flow, and convey empathy.

During silence, therapists observed the client, thought about the therapy, and conveyed interest. In general, therapists indicated that they would use silence with clients who were actively problem-solving, but they would not use silence with very disturbed clients. Therapists learned about using silence mostly through clinical experience”.

Silence is Work

In silence, it appears you aren’t doing enough in session but focusing your attention on another is challenging work. Silence in counseling is a part of a skill known as attending. Nonverbal attending may be mentioned in university programs for counseling students, but it is not often practiced in class. In a nutshell, it is the act of being mindful of the client’s words and nonverbal communication. As a counselor, you want to match your body language, nonverbal gestures, and visual eye contact with the client.  

Listening is an active process. When focusing on what another is saying and not interpreting it from your perspective, you offer the client a safe space to express. In silence, you can communicate nonverbally and show empathic support. This can be demonstrated through a head nod, a warm smile, eye contact, and body positioning.

Silence in therapeutic sessions can create a space for healing. While discussing a topic, it allows the client time to experience their thoughts and feelings. When they come to their own conclusions and problem-solve, it helps clients take responsibility and do the work of therapy.

Awkward Silences in Therapy

Many clients do not create moments of peace and quiet in their daily lives. For them, silence can be a new experience. If the client feels awkward or anxious facing silence, the counselor can normalize this feeling and explain why silence is important in the therapeutic process.

Some counselors and new counselors may feel uncomfortable with silence. To decrease their anxiety or a feeling of over-responsibility for how the session unfolds, counselors fill in these spaces with their thoughts or questions. They may not realize that these interruptions create a missed opportunity for clients to go deeper with their experience. Supervision can be helpful in exploring why the counselor is uncomfortable with silence.

With practice, patience and time, counselors learn how to sit in silence more comfortably and easily. When counselors allow the experience to be what it is, sometimes it is uncomfortable or awkward, but it is all a part of the process.

Other times, silence may be awkward because it is not indicated. Elongated silence is not recommended for new clients with whom you do not have an established therapeutic relationship. Silence can affect various mental health conditions, including paranoia or extreme anxiety.  

Clients who are resistant or have difficulty identifying their feelings can become silent in session. It can be helpful in these moments to talk about why they do not talk.

Therapeutic Benefits

Bracketing

Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, described bracketing in his book, The Road Less Traveled, 25th Anniversary Edition (ed. Simon and Schuster, 2002): “An essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, step inside his or her shoes.”

When you listen, there is a tendency for your brain’s personal reaction to step in. You can learn how to bracket these prejudices and judgments to be more present with your client. 

First, you need to become aware of your assumptions. When you encounter these thoughts in the future, you can develop a manner to place them aside mentally, to listen to your client’s experience fully. White & Palacios 2020 state, “Counselors situating their subjectivity within this framework engender a therapeutic environment where clients are able to tell their stories and create meaning without pretenses.” 

Empathic Responding

In a session, there needs to be a balance between listening, responding, and questions. Too many questions can feel like an interrogation, eroding trust and rapport. For some clients, too much silence feels unbearable.

Sitting with the client in silence is using the art of empathic listening. This allows the client to recognize what is happening within, without the input of the counselor’s ideas and thoughts. When clients feel the counselor understands them, they develop a trusting relationship in which they feel safe enough to talk about their innermost feelings and thoughts. When used appropriately, empathy can build trust or increase client motivation.

Counselors show they care by validating their clients’ thoughts and feelings, without judgment. Empathy demonstrates an understanding of the other’s experience through reflecting and paraphrasing. This communication process allows the client to confirm that you are on the same page. When this happens successfully, a client feels heard and understood. If the counselor misinterprets, it allows the client to express more fully and the counselor to correct his or her understanding. You do not have to be perfect for a client to trust you, but you do have to be willing and open.

Active listening is key to building and maintaining empathy throughout the therapeutic process. Active listening is a process of engaging with the client to hear what is being said. At times, it also means hearing what is not being said.

The first two stages of active listening are receiving and processing. This is where silence will be useful. The last stage is responding. Responding is when the counselor comments on the context of the verbal and nonverbal communication from the client.

Using your intuition, tune into what your client needs. Speak your client’s language by choosing the words your client uses. Throughout the counseling process, it is wise to periodically check in with your client and ask for feedback about the therapeutic process, including using silence.

Client-Centered Therapy

Client-centered or person-centered therapy trusts in the client’s process and timing. Both silence and empathic responding help support client-centered therapy. As defined by the American Psychological Association

“…an orderly process of client self-discovery and actualization occurs in response to the therapist’s consistent empathic understanding of, acceptance of, and respect for the client’s frame. The therapist sets the stage for personality growth by reflecting and clarifying the ideas of the client, who is able to see himself or herself more clearly and come into closer touch with his or her real self. As therapy progresses, the client resolves conflicts, reorganizes values and approaches to life, and learns how to interpret his or her thoughts and feelings, consequently changing behavior that he or she considers problematic.”  

DeSousa’s writings on client-centered therapy in 2014 state, “Rogers proposes the hypothesis that there are certain attitudes on the therapist’s part (genuineness, non-possessive warmth and acceptance, and accurate empathy) that constitute the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic effectiveness to occur within the client.”

The Benefits for Clients

Silence keeps the focus on what the client needs by giving them the time and space needed to express and process emotions. Clients feel their thoughts and feelings are valued, rather than being steered by the counselor’s agenda. “Silence in psychotherapy seems to be the golden ticket that gives access to insight and emotional awareness on the part of the patient” (Knol et al., 2020). 

When a topic has come to a conclusion, silence can act as a bookend to separate different topics of conversation. It can show there is a transition before a new topic is begun. This helps the client naturally go on to the next or a new topic.

Silence holds the space and creates safety. When a client has shared an emotional experience, he or she needs time to feel the emotions and let them flow out physically. 

Silence can increase client compliance. When a client feels heard and understood, a client will be more likely to return to therapy and do the work of therapy.

The Benefits for Counselors

Silence helps counselors make more accurate assessments. Silence gives the counselor time to reflect before responding. These moments can help in processing what the client has said. Silence also gives the counselor some time to understand fully what is being said, rather than assuming. When a counselor is in tune with the client, he or she knows what the client is currently feeling.

The use of silence can be used to teach a brief meditation or mindfulness session.

In group, couples, or family therapy, silence can allow the counselor to observe communication dynamics between people.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 18 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.