9 Tips for Awkward Silences in Therapy

What do you say when there are no words?

Posted Dec 29, 2017

cory-bouthillette, used with permission
Source: cory-bouthillette, used with permission

Look, we’ve all been there. All of your history has been laid out, the current fires have been extinguished, and it feels like nothing happened this week. All the good stuff has already been covered (or so it seems). You're in the middle of your therapy session and you draw a blank. Where should you go from here? What should you talk about in therapy? Awkward.

I assure you, this is a common problem. As in, it’s a problem therapists encounter every day. Clients are truly seeking help and want to engage, but somehow they hit a brick wall. They may start looking at the clock or door as they start to plan their exit. What is the “talking cure” if there’s nothing to talk about?

This is a perfect time to take a little step back and look at what’s going on. It’s easy to get caught up in the moments of recounting history and stories and crises and lose track of the big picture. I call upon one of my favorite sayings: “It’s best to fix the roof when the sun is shining.” Since you’re not in a crisis, we can spend the time looking at the issues that produced the crisis in the first place. We can dive a little deeper to prevent future crises from ever happening. This is part of building resilience, which is always a plus. 

It can be helpful to have a handful of fallback questions at times like these. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I'm all about clear communication, a focus on the therapeutic relationship, and empowering clients. Here are some prompts that may help you not only find material to discuss, but take therapy to a deeper level:

  1. “What do I want?” Take a deep look inside and ask what it is you truly want. If you had a genie in a lamp granting you three wishes (not including infinite wishes, smarty pants…) what would you wish for? Peace? Connection? Stability? Healing? Purpose? Cash? Sex? Anything is fair game, brainstorm out loud and see the new goals form.
  2. “How do I feel?” It might seem obvious, but not for everyone. Take a second to check in with yourself in the moment and over the past week and see what emotions you’ve experienced. You might want to start with the physical sensations you feel in your body. Many people are so busy they don’t know what they feel, and this could point you in the direction of unfinished business.
  3. “Where am I headed?” If nothing changes, where will you be in five years? Is that where you want to be? Is something holding you back? If not, what’s missing from life as is? Talk about what prevents you from heading in the right direction.
  4. “What am I afraid of?” Some of the most common reasons for feeling stuck in therapy is a fear of judgment, shame, or unfairly burdening the therapist with some heavy material. When you open up about these fears you benefit in two ways: your therapist may reassure you in ways that alleviate your fears of judgment or shame, and by vocalizing these fears you take back some control over them. Those mountains become molehills, and you can start talking again.
  5. “What do I not want to talk about?” This question brings some surprising answers. Our psyche plays a cruel trick when we get stuck focusing on not having anything to say. That becomes the focus, rather than all the important items we don’t want to talk about. It’s easier to focus on how therapy isn’t working than talk about childhood abuse, or old grudges, or deeper feelings rarely discussed. We’d rather fixate on a reason not to disclose than mention suicidality. What do you not want to say? Yeah, that’s probably the thing to say.
  6. “How do I feel about the therapist?” You came into therapy to work on you, but then you develop feelings about your therapist, it’s inevitable. Her lack of empathy. His bad jokes. Her lack of experience. His magic insight. Issues within the therapeutic relationship will impact everything else that happens in therapy, so you may as well clear the air there first. Something like “I’ve been thinking about how we work together and I noticed….” might be a good start.
  7. “How does it feel to be stuck?” If therapy is all about talking about feelings, and you’re feeling stuck, why not talk about how it feels to be stuck? What’s your experience of stuckness right now? What does it make you want to do? Have you felt stuck in the past? What did you do to get unstuck then?
  8. Nothing. If you don’t have anything to talk about in therapy, maybe this is the time to not talk. As I’ve said before, silence in therapy is not always a problem, it may be exactly what you need.
  9. Quit. If you’ve tried items 1 through 8 and still feel like you’re getting nowhere, maybe it’s time to sign off. Another therapist could be a better fit, or perhaps therapy isn’t right for you at this time. It takes a lot of time and energy (and money) to dive into therapy, and this may not be the time for you. You can still explore yourself through journaling and meditation, and therapy could be more appealing at a later date. If this is you, take a look at this series first.

In essence, therapy is a great place to experience and work through these impasses both because you have a trained relationship professional across from you and because you won’t be judged regardless of the outcome. It’s a laboratory to work through awkward moments. Take advantage of it.