It’s strange that a topic that speaks volumes is literally one where words aren’t required – silence.
Sometimes when people come into therapy or coaching, silence is something that clients worry about. In reality, whilst silence is often used within the therapy room to provide time and space to reflect, some people have only ever experienced the darker side of silence.
Picture this: you’re spending time walking with a close friend or loved one. You’re in the open air, surrounded by nature and glorious views. You naturally drift in and out of conversation, but sometimes you’re together, just sharing a moment of peace where no words are required. This companionable silence is supportive, shows a shared understanding and a connection between you that exists beyond words. In relationships such as these, it’s an unspoken bond, that “I’m here for you”, the quiet assurance that you’re not alone.
Supportive silence, whilst quiet is absolutely full of communication between parties. It’s an active presence, a choice to be in the moment together without cluttering it with unnecessary chatter. Sometimes, our world is so full, busy and noisy that this shared quiet can give a moment of solace that metaphorically speaks volumes.
On the flip side, silence can often be wielded as a weapon in relationships. The silent treatment, stone walling and non-communication can be a hugely damaging force which leaves its mark on people, both now and in future relationships also.
It’s not the absence of words which hurts us often, it’s the intentional removal of connection and affection which causes distress. When silence is used as a weapon, it speaks volumes about power dynamics and control within relationships. I’ve all too often seen how much damage is caused when this happens, particularly when it’s the relationships which are most influential to us – with our parents, partners and children.
Now let’s think about how we use silence in the coaching and therapy spaces. Silence is often used to allow clients the time and space to consider their thoughts and feelings. It’s not about awkwardness or neglect, it’s about encouraging reflection. Within these relationships, I like to think of silence as a companion or a guide. It enables me to support clients to gain insight into their emotions and behaviours by creating space for them to delve beyond the surface and find their own solutions. Despite the lack of words, it’s a form of communication which is hugely powerful.
That said, I sometimes have to explain this to clients and slowly build up their tolerance to even short moments of silence as it brings up the feelings of abandonment, fear or uncertainty from other relationships where silence was handed out as a punishment. It’s a delicate dance and is individual to each person who comes into my therapeutic or coaching space.
Rather than considering silence as awkward, or a void that needs to be filled as is often the case with small talk, think about silence is a space to grow into. By creating these periods of space, I enable clients to consider new ways of thinking, identify goals, and reflect on beliefs or patterns which no longer serve them.
In relationships, it’s importance to consider the difference between supportive silence which creates connection, and harmful silence which serves as a barricade between you. Healthy communication involves expressing feelings and listening to the other, not resorting to the cold shoulder.
The next time you find yourself tempted to use silence to make your point or communicate your point, consider the lasting impact it could have on your relationship. You may wish to think about how has your experience of silence in your important relationships shaped the way you communicate?
Silence can build walls between us or bridges to connect us, which will you choose?