The Silence Between Two Speakers

There are so many things to love about getting a new record: ripping off the cellophane, opening the gatefold, admiring all the artwork, taking the record out carefully, and giving it a first listen. All of these awesome things aside, one of my favorite parts is the pop and hiss that comes for the first few seconds after dropping the needle onto the lead-in grooves. 

For those few seconds, the air coming from the speakers is palpable; there is a sense of hope and excitement about what is soon to come. While often overlooked and un-talked about, this silence is an important part of the experience.

The same holds true for silence in therapy; It doesn't get very much attention in the client-therapist relationship. Here, too, it is equally important that we notice its benefits to get the most out of it. 

When I was a young therapist working in Cancer Wellness, I was very nervous. I had this internal drive to say something -- anything -- magical to help my clients feel better. Watching people struggle and not helping them is antithetical to my existence. Being a new therapist, I rarely had anything magical to say (or so I thought) so in lieu of brilliance I just put a lot of words. 

Immediately following my clients' responses, I felt the need to have a question, to make a big observation or to get them to keep talking. As you can probably imagine, having someone fill every space with words when you're already feeling anxious might make you... well... more anxious. 

Not helpful, Alex. Not helpful. 

But I've grown since then. I've sat with so many clients with so many presenting issues and with varied backgrounds. What I've learned is that silence is one of the most important tools that I have available to you.  Silence does so many things in our time together:

  1. It gives your feelings some breathing room.
  2. It provides a canvas for you to paint on.
  3. It allows you to test the trust in our relationship, and then to make big jumps. 
  4. It gives you additional moments in your life without "noise".
  5. It allows the waves to come.

I'm sure there are more but these are the ones coming to me at this moment. Let me explain:

1. It gives your feelings some breathing room.

So you've been sitting there for 20 minutes telling me about your vulnerabilities -- that tends to bring up emotions. Sometimes, it's good for you to sit with that emotional experience without being hammered for more information. Sometimes, the information IS the emotional experience. I like to honor that space with you.

2. It provides a canvas for you to paint on. 

This is a little more psychodynamic in nature but sometimes, me not talking with encourage you to go on a little bit further. Most people tend to be less comfortable with silence than I and will subsequently keep talking. That notably happens without the internal dialogue asking "Is this relevant?". It's relevant and it's part of you. A lot of revealing and important information comes from these moments. 

3. It allows you to test the trust in our relationship, and then to make big jumps. 

You and I are in here working as a team. We talk about pretty much everything together. At points, though, you come to information that you've never shared with anyone before and you have a decision to make. Share or not share? Important or not important? When I think we're getting close to a moment like that, I often remind myself to get out of the way. To let you have a couple seconds of silence to make that decision; to invite you approach at your own pace. It's a way for me to honor your autonomy while also remaining present for your experience.

4. It gives you additional moments in your life without "noise". 

Some of us are constantly surrounded by noise: radio, children talking, spouses, co-workers, TV, podcasts, traffic, phones, etc. You don't necessarily realize this fact, though, until you get a consistent moment of silence. In addition to auditory silence, I'm also talking about all forms of external stimulation. Most people are on their phones at every given second that's free -- we have come to rely on distraction. A lull in conversation not filled with a smart-device is pretty rare these days. I get to give people that moment and I think that's pretty cool. 

5. It allows the waves to come. 

Bookending this set of comments, number five is parallel to number one. While some folks are ready to sit in their emotion, others have been running away. They've never let the emotions show up. I have seen, given the absence of distraction, a moment of silence bring forth a lot of repressed emotions. Fits of laughter and crying; a deep sigh of relief. Even bursts of confidence and pride. If you know anything about how I feel about avoidance, you'll know that I believe it's good for you to let those tigers out of your head.

 

All in all, silence can be a powerful part of therapy. It's one of my favorites because it stands out as unique in this day and age. I invite you to reconsider moments of silence in your life; both in therapy and out. Are you potentially missing out on the magic? To sum this up, I'll leave you with two quotes.

 

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.

— Claude Debussy
It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.
— Miles Davis

Until next time, take care of yourselves.

-Alex

Alexander Michaud