Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Sarah Luczaj

It’s OK to Say Nothing

The lesson that it is facilitative not to press others to disclose, and to communicate that lack of pressure explicitly, is a useful one in all kinds of relationships; mothers persistently asking their children to tell them what happened at school springs to mind, as does the situation in which the stereotypical wife ‘asks the husband to talk about his feelings’.

Sometimes all we need in order to open up and say things which are hard for us is permission to say nothing at all. An interesting post in The Relaxed Therapist examines this issue in terms of control — as a power issue. The therapy situation from the start is unequal: however keen I may be as a counsellor for the client to use their own power to direct their own process, I have to realise that I hold all the knowledge about the situation, both the norms and boundaries of therapy culture, and my own experience and expectations. This feeling that the therapist holds all the cards may indeed lead some clients to need to feel unsure, and they might feel that by keeping their stories to themselves they are hanging on to some control.

The blog post above quotes advice commonly given to therapists in training that the first session is to check out the therapist and the second to talk about the ‘real problem’, but the therapist writes that when he gives the client explicit ‘permission’, as a genuine mark of respect, to withold information, then most clients respond by going into their situation fully in the first session.

While I am not sure that this is what the writer means, a view of therapy in which an underlying message is discernible that clients owe the therapist information, in which disclosure in itself is a goal, seems to me unhelpfully power-based. Where there is a power imbalance there will be conflict. It seems to me that the idea that the client needs to ‘give’ the therapist their story, or selves, in order for the therapist to ‘do something’ with them, is no more than a legitimate fear the client may have, which the therapist can attempt to explicitly dispel during a first session.

In my experience, either the client comes in with a genuine desire to go straight into ‘the problem’, or they do not feel safe to do so and need to build up trust first, in which case the first session is an opportunity for both client and counsellor to ‘check each other out’ and negotiate future work on the most equal basis possible. Valuable work can also be done in the here and now between the client and therapist or within the client without ever mentioning ‘the story’ or ‘the problem’.

This kind of first session also contains the message that it is alright to say or not to say whatever comes. There may well be issues of vital importance which never get discussed. But clients, once they feel safe, are free to use the space and the relationship as they want to. They owe the therapist nothing, and therapists are kidding themselves if they think they are ever aware of all the relevant facts or feelings.

The lesson that it is facilitative not to press others to disclose, and to communicate that lack of pressure explicitly, is a useful one in all kinds of relationships; mothers persistently asking their children to tell them what happened at school springs to mind, as does the situation in which the stereotypical wife ‘asks the husband to talk about his feelings’…

When you feel that it is acceptable to be however you are, to say as much or as little as you like, then more often than not a feeling of safety and trust is created in the relationship, and you can say as much as you need and want to say. You are free to choose. And that acceptance in itself is enough to help promote growth and well-being.

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