In a 2009 study of 10 languages from five continents, Tanya Stiver and her associates found that the amount of time between turns when people are in conversation is remarkably brief and surprisingly universal. On average, the gap between speakers is about 200 milliseconds. That’s milliseconds! Just about the time it takes to say a syllable.

In order to keep the conversation flowing then, people have to start planning their replies in the middle of whatever the speaker is saying. Does that mean we’re only planning our responses and not listening? Not really. The researchers found that people who are engaged in conversation are aware of multiple nuances in our choice of words as well as the rhythm and tone of speech. When talking to each other, we are exquisitely tuned in to each other and do understand each other’s content and intent.

The study also identified two universal rules in conversation:

1) Avoid speaking at the same time as a matter of courtesy and to give the speaker time to complete a thought.

2) Avoid silence between turns. When the gap between speakers is lengthened, it has generally the same meaning across cultures: Either the listener is in disagreement or she is unwilling to give a definite answer.

The first rule is easy to follow because it is a rule we have been taught from childhood. Most of us were admonished by our parents, teachers and elders not to interrupt; to let people finish. Most young therapists therefore know better than to talk over their patients. Most understand that interrupting a patient’s thoughts or ignoring their feelings is not therapeutic.

But a challenge for many beginning therapists is that most schools of therapy require us to break the other fundamental rule for ordinary discussions. To be effective, the therapist must both tolerate and use silence as a therapeutic tool. Despite the fact that this approach is so central to effectiveness, it is often overlooked by training programs as an essential skill that needs to be taught.

Breaking the universal rule around turn-taking in conversation is anxiety provoking. We are conditioned from the time we first learned to communicate to keep talking. When conversation lapses for more than that 200 milliseconds, most people feel compelled to relieve mounting tension by filling in the gaps. A new therapist’s task is to work through whatever anxiety he or she has about letting conversation lag.

Stretching out the gap between a patient’s statements and our responses doesn’t come naturally. But, in therapy, our silences are as powerful as whatever we might say.

The Benefits of Therapist Silence in Session

 Therapist silence can help the client stay in charge of the session. When we don’t jump in with an agenda, the client will often take more responsibility for setting the goal of the session and for deciding what is most important.

Comfortable silence can provide what D.W. Winnicott referred to as a “holding environment.” In such a silence, the client can feel safe. It indicates that there is space in the therapy hour for the person to do serious introspection. Further, they can experience our lack of immediate responses as confidence in their ability to deal with their distressing issues.

Silence can slow things down in a productive way. A patient who is anxious to solve a problem may land on a solution prematurely or settle on a decision that is borne of that anxiety, not on new understanding. The therapist can suggest that they both take a few minutes to sit quietly and think about the usefulness of such a decision before coming to conclusions.

Done supportively, silence can exert some positive pressure on the client to stop and reflect. Non-verbal signals of patience and empathy by the therapist can encourage the client to express thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be covered up by too much anxious talk.

Sympathetic silence can signal empathy. When the therapist responds to accounts of tragedy, traumatic experiences or emotional pain with non-verbal cues of kindness and understanding, it can mean more than awkward attempts to verbally express sympathy. For some things, there really are no words that are adequate to the situation– at least at first.

Attentive silence can help us when we feel “stuck.” Carl Rogers, a master at kind and supportive silences, often stated that when in doubt about what to do, listen.

Not so finally, silence can give the therapist time to think. It reduces patient anxiety about our silence if we mark it by saying something like “Let me think for a moment about what you just said.” Such a remark signals respect for the client’s ideas and feelings while we take the time to sort through what is best to say.

On the Other Hand:

Remember, our silence breaks a universal conversational rule. It’s therefore essential that we educate our clients about the difference between ordinary conversation and therapy. Conversation requires rapid turn-taking to keep the social gears turning. Therapy requires slow, thoughtful consideration of feelings and ideas as we work toward a goal.

Even having been told and retold that silences are useful in therapy, they can be anxiety-provoking for the client.  If the client feels threatened by our lack of response, therapy won’t go anywhere. An anxious reaction needs to be met with a reassuring response.

The patient may not be ready to manage the feelings and thoughts that come up in lengthened conversational spaces. Fewer or shorter silences may be required for awhile to help the patient develop trust in our process. As the client develops that trust, he may become more comfortable with spaces that prompt him to feel uncomfortable feelings and to talk about painful events.

As the researchers noted, silences can be read by the client as disapproval, rejection or withholding. A brief verbal explanation or non-verbal cues like a head nod or hand gesture can make the space feel supportive instead of dismissive.

 Silence as an Oasis

Silent moments in therapy serve as an oasis from the chatter that fills most of our lives. Like an oasis, supportive silences can refresh, nurture and strengthen those around it. Because such spaces in conversation are outside usual human interactions, they can let something different happen. They are a powerful tool that we each need to develop thoughtfully and purposefully.

For more information about the study of conversational gaps, see:

Stiver, Tanya, N.J. Enfield, P. Brown, et.al., Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,  Vol. 106, No. 26