I’ve never been great with silence.  In my own life, I am known to be listening to music while working at my laptop, or having the television on while cleaning a room.  When I used to jog regularly, I would be sure to be wearing headphones.  It has been hard to sit with my thoughts without having the ability to refocus on whatever information my ears bring me.  I am aware of my tendency to fill space with sound, and I try as much as possible to bring this awareness to my work.

Intellectually, I know that there is power in silence; that the quiet offers a time for contemplation and intention.  In more recent years, I have developed a great respect for the power and benefits of meditation and mindfulness, and try to bring both into my own life as well as into the lives of my clients.  Still, I notice that prolonged silence is anxiety provoking for me and, I’m guessing, many of us.  Noticing this discomfort for me, has allowed me to sit with silence with greater acceptance.

Silence for Safety

When I met Melissa, she had come to therapy to address relationships with several people in her life with whom she felt stuck.  While one relationship was work related with a colleague and the other relationship was a romantic one, in both she felt as though her needs were not being met.  When she felt particularly troubled, she experienced both relationships as bordering on abusive.  Both people had been in her life for over 10 years. From the start, she realized she was not getting what she needed and her resentment was growing.

In our work together, as I gathered information about Melissa’s history, a pattern began to emerge.  I would ask a question and she would answer the question, but with no elaboration or explanation.  Our sessions began to feel like courtroom testimony in which I felt like the prosecuting attorney and Melissa seemed like a witness for the defense, where she had been instructed to answer only the question being asked.  Soon, I noticed the rhythm of question/answer, question/answer, and question/answer.  And if I didn’t ask a question, we sat in silence until I asked another question, or until the session ended.

During this period of our work together, we also explored small changes Melissa wanted to make in these two relationships.  We broke these down into even smaller actions Melissa might explore in order to begin to get more of what she needed.  Still, each week she would return to sessions embarrassed and ashamed that she had not engaged in any of the behaviors we had identified.  Even when I asked what she thought stopped her from experimenting with some of these strategies, there was a notable silence before she said “I don’t know.”  And then there was more silence.

I started to notice more of my internal reactions to my sessions with Melissa.  I felt a sense of anticipatory dread as our session time approached.  I felt pressured to “carry” our sessions; to ask question after question, or to sit in what felt like interminable silence.  Soon, it became clear to me that I wasn’t helping Melissa.  In fact, more likely than not, I was participating in an enactment of what her life felt like in the relationships she came to therapy to change.

At our next session, I shared with Melissa more explicitly the dynamic I experienced in our time together.  I also asked if her time with me felt like some of her interactions with her colleague and/or with her partner.  I was met with silence, but the expression on Melissa’s face spoke volumes.  “Is it hard for you to sometimes initiate conversation in our time together?” I asked.  She nodded affirmatively.  “And do you have the same feeling with your colleague and your partner as you do in sessions with me?”  She nodded affirmatively again.  Soon, we clarified that her silences in sessions were a direct reflection of her literal and figurative silences in her personal relationships.  “I have an idea,” I offered.   “Are you open to an experiment?”  Melissa nodded affirmatively.

Because of Melissa’s difficulty initiating discussion with her colleague and partner, and because this also manifest in our sessions, I invited her to take charge of our next session.  I volunteered to greet her, but asked that she manage the remaining hour.  To my surprise, she came to the session with a written agenda and with the exception of one very brief silence, she filled our time with experiences from her growing up that she thought contributed to her silence in relationships in the present; that growing up in a home with an alcoholic father, she learned to be silent and almost hidden, awaiting the next bout of drunken anger. 

Silence Because There Are No Words

Silence had a different meaning for Nathan, one of the members of a group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse I was facilitating.  Always attentive, Nathan was one of the most quiet group members I’ve known.   He sat in the same place each time the group met.  His check-ins at the beginning of each group were thoughtful, but always brief.  During group discussions and activities, it was clear he was engaged and interested, though he rarely volunteered to speak, and when asked questions directly, he would answer, though his responses were spoken softly.  All of us learned that despite his silence, the group was important to him.

As the group progressed, Nathan remained an often silent participant.  There were times as others spoke about very painful experiences, that his eyes were moist as he rubbed the back of his hands against them.  Other times, it was clear he was listening, though still he remained silent.

It was during one group art activity that Nathan’s silence had particular meaning.  We were all on the floor, using crayon and markers on a large piece of craft paper, constructing a mural.  Each group member was asked to visualize a time or times from childhood when he experienced anger.  As we were drawing, Nathan selected a large black marker.  He began slowly making small and then larger black circles, one on top of the other.  And as he gained momentum, the circles became darker and darker as he colored with greater intensity.  Finally, the space in front of him was entirely black.  He had pressed so hard with the marker that he had ripped the paper.

There were no words Nathan could have used to describe his anger from experiences of childhood sexual abuse.  While still audibly silent, the dark, swirling, torn paper where he shared his anger with us was palpable.  We all felt it with him.  Words were completely unnecessary.

Silence for Introspection

Unlike Nathan and Melissa, Lewis had periods of silence throughout his work with me.  I had been seeing him for over 5 years, though there were periods of time when we didn’t meet.  Lewis had a doctoral degree in literature.  Language and word choice were exceptionally important to him.

When we initially met, I noticed times of silence during which Lewis would look out the window or would look down at his hands. While tempted to break in with more questions or observations, I knew I needed to respect the silence and see where it took us.  Thankfully, by not caving to my own discomfort, Lewis almost always responded to a question or continued the conversation with an exceptionally thorough, candid, and introspective response.  I’m fairly confident that had I not allowed for silence, I would have interfered with his process.

Silence Has Different Meanings

With the three people I’ve written about, silence had a different meaning and conveyed a different message.  With Melissa, the silence that occurred in our sessions paralleled the silence and occasional paralysis she experienced in other relationships.  Allowing her to experiment with “taking charge” of the silence provided opportunities to practice taking action elsewhere in her life.  With Nathan, the silence existed because he could not convey with words the pain he experienced as a child.  It was only through drawing that he allowed us to more fully understand him.  And with Lewis, silence was about careful and thoughtful introspection.  Allowing the silence to exist fostered time and space to contemplate the themes and dynamics of his life.

There are, of course, other types of silence that have other meanings or intentions.  For example, some silence exists because we are not able to be present.  Something may be happening in the moment that doesn’t feel safe, or the present moment connects us with an experience that in the past has been dangerous.  In those moments, our body may be present in the room, but all other parts of us are elsewhere.  Silences like these may require that we move more slowly or that we teach skills to remain grounded and present in the room.  It is always important to notice this kind of silence, which distinguishes itself from the silences I have discussed. 

Valuing Silence

I remember when I was a new social worker, my supervisor consistently reminded me how important it was to allow space for silence.  I had to remind myself that the measure of a productive or beneficial meeting with a client wasn’t contingent on continuous conversation.   It also wasn't measured by the extent to which I made an insightful comment that fostered a lightbulb moment.  I know now there are times when words can’t adequately or accurately convey a thought or experience.

While I still struggle with prolonged silences, I try to remind myself of the importance of sitting with them rather than filling them with words.  I coach myself to watch what is happening when there is silence; to notice someone’s breathing, or to notice the extent to which someone is moving or not moving, or to notice subtle changes in someone’s facial expressions. 

While there may not be sound when there is silence, there is almost always an important message being conveyed.

Silence can be a plan, rigorously executed, the blueprint to a life.  It is a presence, it has a history, a form.  Do not confuse it with any kind of absence.

—Cartographies of Silence, Adrienne Rich