Why Therapists Need to Shut Up

by Kimberly on October 20, 2009 · 5 comments

One of the hardest skills to learn as a therapist is to shut up. Silence is hard. Silence makes us uncomfortable.

The other week, I was with a client, “Tony.” Tony is 10 years old and is a very angry child. He has a right to be angry–he grew up in a chaotic, abusive environment, was removed from his mom, and has a really hard time connecting with others.

However, Tony responds remarkably well to music and he is turning into a prolific songwriter (we’ve already cranked out 6 songs in 2 months). During our session the other week, I was probing, trying to get Tony to process some of the words he had written. At first, Tony was just quiet, not answering. I probed more. No answer. I tried another question. He buried his head in his hands. I waited a minute, then asked another queConversationstion. Finally, Tony shouted:

Why do you keep asking questions?!?”

I had forgotten to allow for silence and Tony got angry.

Silence is important because it allows our clients time to process. Many of the clients we work with need a little extra time to process information, whether it be about their feelings, events that occurred, or the question you just asked. They need that time to filter and understand their own thoughts before sharing them with you.

This is true for both individual and group therapy sessions. Allow time for processing. In a group setting, you also need to allow time for the first person to be brave enough to be the first to speak (depending on the group, of course). If you give that time, someone in the group will be break the silence. Just don’t let it be you.

It’s also important to remember that the silence will always seem longer to you, the therapist, than it does to the client. It’s natural for us to want to fill in space, to jump in and share our thoughts while the client is still processing. Don’t. Allow the silence to be. It’s hard, but with practice it will get easier.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Roia October 21, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Ouch! Don’t you hate when our clients point out our goofs? I spend an awful lot more time in silence with my clients than not (given that the majority of them don’t use speech). Some day I think I’d like to do a presentation on silence. Hm. The MAR conference is coming up…maybe for that.

Anyway, I’ve learned to notice that the silences with my clients have different qualities. As such, one of the things I try to do is find ways to “play the silence”- meaning, more specifically, to reflect the quality of the silence in that particular moment/day using the music.
.-= Roia´s last blog ..Battling inertia one session at a time =-.

Kimberly October 22, 2009 at 8:03 am

That’s a good point, Roia, that silence has different qualities. I had not thought about it, but since you mention it I can think of the different qualities of silence (as you put it) that some of my clients have. Thanks! ~Kimberly

Jacueline Edwards March 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Great article. Our school uses the policy(not always easy to follow:)): SPEAK LESS, WAIT MORE, USE VISUALS. This reminder is posted in every classroom and therapy area. We continue to remind ourselves everyday. Always learning!!! Thanks.

Kimberly March 30, 2010 at 8:11 am

It’s not always easy, is it?! But it’s a good practice to follow, not just with clients/students, but also in our personal lives (can you imagine how many disagreements we could avoid if we just waited–breathed–and listened?) Not easy, but we keep trying! ~Kimberly

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