Have you ever sought therapy for a problem you felt you just couldn’t shake on your own and then spent most of the session listening to your therapist talk? Have you ever felt like it was hard to get a word in edgewise in your own therapy session? These are some of the most common complaints I hear from people who seek professional help.
Psychotherapy is not supposed to be like a regular conversation. Over-talking, whether therapists are talking about you or—even worse—themselves, is one of the most common therapeutic blunders. No one can do someone else’s processing. Whether a therapist offers more structured cognitive-behavioral therapy or takes a more relational and insight-oriented approaches, the person who needs to be doing the work is the client.
Yes, therapists are supposed to talk. Sometimes there are good reasons for therapeutic monologues. For example, some of the more structured forms of therapy involve a fair amount of teaching new concepts and explaining exercises. Still, the focus should always remain on the client and it is important to shift back as quickly as possible to letting the client apply these concepts and exercises to their own life.
There is a group therapy version of this problem. Some group leaders seem to feel the need to weigh in with a comment after each and every comment that is made by any group member. This puts a damper on natural discussion. When therapists make every single interaction about them, it also reduces the chances that group members will form bonds with each other, learn from each other, and help each other. These are some of the most important benefits of the group therapy format. Over-talking is also a common problem in the classroom. Some professors and teachers turn every interaction into a two-way interaction between them and the student, as if they have to prove they have something to add to anything anyone might say.
The Skill to be Silent
What is the solution? Silence is a very basic active listening skill and if your therapist is struggling with it, you may want to consider seeking another therapist. Also, it is important to note that the skill to be silent is not enough to be a good therapist. Like almost everything in therapy, it is always a matter of balance and being able to respond in the moment. Although, in my experience, it’s a much less common problem; it is possible to be too silent.
If you are a therapist, advocate, counselor, or teacher of some kind, here are a few tips.
What does it mean that “therapy is not a regular conversation”? What does this look like in a therapy session? It is not that complicated. Therapists need to become comfortable with longer pauses during therapy than would be considered appropriate by U.S. social standards. A person who has gone to see a therapist has taken a big and often difficult step. It is hard to talk about one’s problems and for many it might be the first time they are saying them out loud. A therapist who fills every awkward pause is a therapist who is not letting clients organize their thoughts, choose their words, and find the courage to speak them.
Yes, it might seem a little clichéd to nod and murmur “Mm hmmm” or “I see.” That’s OK. All therapists need a range of nonverbal and subtle verbal ways to show that they are listening and want the client to keep talking. The first few times, this can seem awkward, but I’ve seen many students master them fairly quickly and learn to tolerate the anxiety of the pregnant pause.
Therapists need to know what to do while they wait. Your therapist should be sitting up and not be slumping or looking bored. Eye contact can be a little tricky. Human social customs are remarkably precise. Try looking into the eyes of a friend and see how little it takes to make eye contact seem uncomfortably long. I find that looking at my hands folded in my lap or even my feet will convey that I am patiently waiting for them to compose their thoughts. Less talking will also give therapists a chance to compose their own thoughts.
There are also some good group models that really allow clients to tell their story. Alcoholics Anonymous does a good job of welcoming when a member speaks and letting the member share without interruption. Many American Indian communities have the tradition of the “talking circle.” In a talking circle, each person is given a turn to speak as long as they want without interruption.
Novice interviewers almost always report that it is a revelation to see the difference in an interview when silent pauses are not treated as a problem that the therapist must solve. All therapists need to be comfortable with silence. Of course, there’s more to therapy than silence. Silence skills are, however, an essential first step. The good news is that you can easily identify this basic skill and you will be able to tell in just a session or two whether a therapist has it or not. Noticing the skills to handle silence can help guide you to a good therapist.