I am noticing some significant improvements in a number of my skills during skills practice. However, one skill that still requires a lot of work is silence.
During skills practice, I find myself trying not to fill a silence, but just can’t seem to help it. Something pulls me forward to fill that silence. I am not quite sure what it is. It could be a misconception that because counselling is about ‘talking’ then silences mean that I am not helping the client.
Rationally, I know this not to be the case and know that silence itself can be very healing. However, there is something rooted within me that believes the opposite.
From my reading I am aware that this discomfort with silence is a common experience for trainees. I want to explore the issue of silence further in order to try and break down this barrier that I am experiencing in terms of sitting with silence.
Silence within counselling has been defined as:
“the temporary absence of any overt verbal or paraverbal communication between counsellor and client within sessions” (Feltham and Dryden, 1993)
In person-centred counselling, where the counsellor trusts that the client will work in a way and at a pace that is suitable for him or her, the client has control over the content, pace and objectives of a session – including any silences.
Therefore, the person-centred counsellor needs to be prepared to listen to silences as well as words, recognising that the silence may help the client focus (Mearns, 1997).
Silence can actually be productive and it also places the responsibility of the session in the hands of the client, ensuring that when the silence is broken the session is still focused on the client’s agenda. By breaking the silence due to personal discomfort, the agenda has become the counsellors.
Rogers (1942) says of silence:
“In an initial interview, long pauses or silences are likely to be embarrassing rather than helpful. In subsequent contacts, however, if fundamental rapport is good, silence on the part of the counsellor may be a most useful device.”
Mearns and Thorne (2000) believe that there is “a silence of communion where counsellor, client and the ‘something larger’ are interconnected in a world where time stands still.”
In many ways, silence provides the client with space to focus and time to reflect. It is far from being the painful object I perceive it as, but is more so a gift, something the client is likely to rarely experience in the company of others. Allowing silence and being comfortable with silence is in some ways related to unconditional positive regard and having no expectations of the client. They can just ‘be.’ It is ok to just ‘be.’ As George and Cristiani (1990) state, “silence communicates to the client a sincere and deep acceptance.”
Such acceptance is fundamental to person-centred counselling and in order to fully accept my clients I need to learn how to sit with silence. One thing that will help me is to see it as a gift, which is what I am starting to recognise it as.