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Monday, 17 July 2017

Ten things you need to know about silence in therapy

We talk a lot about communication skills in therapy, but one which tends to take a back seat is silence. Not the kind of exaggerated silence you get from the mime on the right there, but the different and subtle ways in which silence itself can be a form of communication between you and your client.

First, it’s fair to say that not all silences are golden. These first few points are where silence might indicate a problem developing in the session.
  1. Avoidance. Some clients may use silence to express their resistance to therapy, or their unwillingness to share information with you. This can be a real problem if someone is "sent" for therapy, perhaps by an employer, and doesn’t want to be there.
  2. Pushing the client too far, or too fast. Silence may happen if your client is worried or embarrassed by something you've asked about. Or that - despite being generally willing to engage in the therapy - they are reluctant to share a specific piece of information at that precise moment.
  3. Not coping. Silence might be an indication that the client is feeling overwhelmed; perhaps not yet ready to admit to or confront their feelings.
  4. Not listened to. Silence may be an indication that your client disagrees with something you've said or feels you don’t understand what they’re saying, but does not feel comfortable enough to challenge or correct you.

    In most of these circumstances, working on your rapport should help. Ensure you are focussed on the client, using all your listening skills and letting them guide the conversation. The more at ease the client feels with you, the better the conversation is likely to flow.

    Sometimes you just need to let something drop, and go back to it later. Clients may not be ready to reveal all their thoughts and secrets at the beginning of therapy; sometimes it takes a session or two for them to feel enough trust for this to happen.

    It can also be useful to ask the client about their silence, inviting them to put their own interpretation on it, so that you can work with that.

    Other silences can be much more positive and helpful:
  5. Offering the right kind of silence. There is no therapeutic value in letting your eyes become unfocussed as your mind wanders to planning your holiday or wondering what to have for tea, leaving your client to feel that they might as well be alone in the room. It has to be comfortable, a time of relaxed waiting, in which you remain centred on the client, noting their non verbal cues, such as changes in breathing, facial expression and body language.
  6. Self-reflection for clients. Clients may need to think about some of the things you say, about how to answer a question, or even about new ideas gained from hearing themselves describing their feelings or situation aloud, perhaps in a particular way for the first time. If you rush in with your next question immediately, the moment - and perhaps the opportunity for insight - is lost.
  7. Thinking time for you. Don't be afraid to take some time to think about your next question, or where you want the conversation to go next, especially if the client has just given you a lot of information in a huge chunk. Better to think how to phrase your response in the most suitable way, using clean language, than to hurry to 'fill the gap' and end up leading your client.
  8. Freedom to experience emotions. Silence can be a 'time out' for clients who are experiencing strong emotions, letting the natural progression of the feeling continue, without rushing on to the next point. 
  9. Asking for more information. Even the most comfortable silence has a natural rhythm and end. As you pause, your client may add extra information without you needing to think of a question at all.
  10. Being client centred. Following on from the last point, allowing silences lets the client choose the direction of the conversation, and avoids you diverting their thoughts before they get to what’s really important to them. 

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Author: is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
Find out more about Debbie's services on
Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training - multi accredited hypnotherapy practitioner training, taster days and foundation levels.
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