Improve rapport by allowing silences

Clients’ perceptions of rapport may be enhanced by silences. Therapists who are uncomfortable with silence should remind themselves that their client’s interpretation of the silence may be much more positive.

A client once asked me not to delay speaking once he finished a comment. He explained that his school report was always sent home in a sealed envelope. He would be forced to stand in silence while his father read the letter, not knowing whether the report was favourable or how his father would react. Three decades later, he experienced the same anxiety during silences in therapy. Agreeing that he was no longer a school child and that a considered response from me was likely to be better than a hasty response helped him overcome his anxiety about my silence.

Therapists may also be uncomfortable with silence in therapy. Time or results conscious therapists may feel that silence is not the best use of the limited time available in a session and may seek to pack as much into the discussion as possible. Other therapists may wonder whether silence means that their question or comment has confused, distressed or even offended the client. Rather than endure the silence, they may rephrase their question or seek to clarify or qualify their comment. Further silence may lead to further rephrasing.

Sharpley, Munro & Elly (2005) investigated the level of rapport perceived by clients during counsellor’s initial interviews. Silence was associated with higher perceived rapport. High ratings of rapport were also more likely during silences begun by the therapist and ended by the client (eg: therapist asks a question and client answers eventually) than during silences begun and ended by the therapist (eg: therapist makes a comment, becomes uncomfortable with the client’s silence and rephrases the comment).

This finding suggests that most clients do not perceive silence as negatively as you might. Further, having asked a question or made a comment, your best course is then to shut up and await the client’s answer. Refraining from an immediate response to the client’s last statement should allow you to make a considered response: speaking slowly should help you say what you mean to say and eye contact from the client will tell you when it is your turn to speak once more.

Reference

Sharpley CF, Munro DM & Elly MJ (2005) Silence and rapport during initial interviews. Counselling Psychology Quarterly 18:149-159

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