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Making Room for Silence in Psychotherapy

Making Room for Silence in Psychotherapy

By Mitch Abblett, PhD

What do therapists (being the highly verbal sort that go to graduate school to become clinicians) do too much of, particularly when they are nervous, confused, or at a complete loss? You guessed it—talk too much. Although many of us practice so-called “talk therapies,” that does not give us a license to overtalk and drown out our clients’ own processing of the challenging situations arising in their lives, which we often impulsively do out of anxiety or feeling stuck—to the detriment of clients’ emotional/psychological processing, as well as the effectiveness of our interventions.

It is a crucial skill to learn to NOT speak, and let the client bring their own truth to the table. Here’s what to do the next time you notice yourself feeling pulled to add another nail to the coffin of your conclusions as to what the client “should” be doing or not doing, or to fill the nervous silence:

1.  Pause, and take in a slow, deep breath into the belly.

2.  Mentally take inventory of how this moment is manifesting in your bodily sensations.  See if you can loosen and ease your tension, letting your body assume a less rigid posture. 

3.  Hurry up and “WAIT.” In other words, ask yourself:

  1. Why
  2. Am
  3. I
  4. Talking?

Let go of any impulse to fill the silence with your conclusions, advice, or attempts to control what happens next. Wait a second or two longer than feels “natural” to you before you do or say the next thing. It’s sometimes in that crucial second or two of delay that I’ve found many clients to finally come forward with a critical piece of emotional disclosure, expression, or “work” in some fashion. “Often, it’s in that next moment where you'll find the ideal (and effective) juncture for a specific intervention.” When we lurch forward because our answer to the “WAIT” question is more about our needs than the client’s, we’ve squashed this piece of progress from happening.

Book Titles: From Anger to Action

A person's fist is in the airMitch R. Abblett, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and former executive director of The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, a nonprofit focusing on education and training at the intersection of mindfulness and treatment. For over a decade, he was clinical director of Manville School, a Harvard-affiliated therapeutic day school program in Boston, MA, serving children with emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties. He maintains a private psychotherapy and consulting practice, and writes about mindfulness, professional development, and family mental health for Mindful magazine (Mindful.org). His books include The Heat of the Moment in Treatment for clinicians, The Challenging Child Toolbox, and The Five Hurdles to Happiness. He also coauthored Mindfulness for Teen Depression and the child/family-friendly practice aid Growing Mindful, as well as additional mindfulness-related card decks. He conducts national and international trainings regarding mindfulness and its applications. Learn more at www.drmitchabblett.com.