There is value in just sitting in silence in a counselling session, writes Brisbane therapist Hannah Jensen-Fielding …
One of my favourite scenes in the 2005 movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is between Willy Wonka and his psychologist.
All that occurs is the psychologist sitting and looking serious, while Wonka talks out loud what he is thinking. Suddenly Wonka realises something, in what counsellors and psychologists everywhere would call a moment of insight. But the psychologist does not speak, even when Wonka tell him “you’re very good”.
Now I will be perfectly honest that it looks like the therapist is doing nothing – he just sits there and half smirks at the end.
But what if that’s not the case?
A lack of knowledge or being afraid might come to mind as a reason for a psychologist or counsellor being silent. This is incorrect. The challenge most novice counsellors or psychologists experience is shutting up. They tell the client what is wrong and how to fix it, rather than letting the client tell them.
The Value of Silence in Counselling
When a therapist is able to sit in silence at times in the counselling session, it can still communicate so much that is of value. Here are just some of the benefits of sitting in silence:
- Holding the space – Regardless of approach, theory, or model of practice, holding the space is one of the therapist’s main responsibilities. People come to counselling when life is going haywire, and as therapists, we need to give them the room to just be. A key component is just allowing the client to say whatever comes into their mind, without interruption; we just need to resist saying anything.
- Lets the client know we are focused on them – Staying silent can tell the client that we are focused on them. We sit in a position which shows we are attentive, but our efforts can be undone if all the client is paying attention to, is our words. We have all experienced moments where we have had the undivided attention of someone else, even if they did not talk a lot. This focus can also prevent one of the most common reasons a client might decide to stop coming for counselling: because ‘they felt like the counsellor was not listening to them’. If we as counsellors and psychologists stay silent, focus on our client, and really hear what they are saying, then we are less likely to misunderstand them.
- Lets them know they are valued – For many clients, when they see the counsellor being silent and focused on them, it sends the message that “you are worth listening to”. When they are stuttering, struggling to know what to say, or going minutes without saying anything, we demonstrate they are valued and worth listening to, by not filling the gaps in the silence.
- Allows for non-verbal communication – Staying silent means we have to use other non-verbal skills to communicate to the client what we want them to know. We start to smile, nod, sit differently, use gestures, change how we use eye contact and so on. This then leads to a more fulfilling counselling experience, and strengthens the rapport between client and counsellor.
- Helps us see things we miss – Finally, staying silent allows the therapist to notice aspects of our clients which we might otherwise miss. For example, by staying silent as a client tries to work though their thoughts, the counsellor notices their tics, something that can then be used as an indicator of what the client is feeling in sessions.
Hopefully I have managed to convince you that sitting in silence in the counselling room is worthwhile. I am not going to lie though, and say it doesn’t have its awkward moments, or sometimes result in you feeling like you have done nothing. I once had a client where many of our sessions had what I would consider awkward silences, with me only speaking 10% of all that was said. While I may have felt completely awkward, the client found those sessions extremely helpful – so know you are not alone if you find yourself in the same (silent) boat!
Author: Hannah Jensen-Fielding, BA (Psychology) Hons, M Couns., PhD Candidate.
Hannah Jensen-Fielding is a Brisbane therapist working from a strengths-based integrative approach, as she believes more momentum is gained by looking forward at the future and who we can become. She utilises mindfulness in therapy where appropriate, to help her clients reduce stress and achieve greater perspective.
To make an appointment with Brisbane therapist Hannah Jensen-Fielding, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.