Therapeutic Silence & Catching The Good
I really enjoyed hunting for the good in other people today. I’m a psychologist so I can spend a large part of my day trying to see the best in people. But today was different. Having long been a proponent of the Three Good Things exercise, and promoting that to my students, I’m an advocate of the idea that what you practice you get good at. So looking to find the good in your day is a way to flex that muscle of focusing on what’s going well, rather than defaulting to our primitive survival instinct of always scanning the environment for threats and what’s going wrong.
But the goodhunting wasn’t like that. It wasn’t about me. I wasn’t recalling my list of things that were going well for me, I was on the look out for things that I liked in other people. It totally caught me off guard how profound that shift and reframing was. Funny, because in the office in the sessions with my clients, seeking out the admirable is a staple for me to connect with them in a deeper, more therapeutically aligned way. Odd how I hadn’t really picked that up with me when I stepped outside that specific context and applied it to other parts of my life.
With this newfound perspective I thought I’d use it to complement a junior colleague who I’m helping train up at the moment. In our brief hallway catch-up this morning I made sure to say “good job” and “well done on taking that initiative” and that went all fine. But there was something missing from that interaction that was nagging at me for most of the rest of the day with the voice in my head saying you should totally do that again but with more emphasis. Mid afternoon the phone rings and it’s her, we work in the same building literally just down the corridor from one another but whatever it’s Friday afternoon and it’s funny to be demonstratively lazy and just dial me. But after I answered her admin trivia question I hold her on the line, and say, look while I’ve still got you here, I just wanted to say once again that I really admire what you’re doing… round two but with more feeling. And it was magic. We really connected. And I could hear in her voice the appreciation that comes from making a special deal of a thank you that’s so much more powerful than tacking on a thank you in the midst of an already cluttered conversation space of everyday jibber jabber.
I’ve noticed myself today now beginning to scan my environment for the things other people are doing well. I think this will make me a nicer person to be around and to work with. What a beautiful thing to have happen on a Friday.
One of the principles of taking a Solutions Focused therapeutic approach is to focus on where the client wants to go. It’s a big yellow taxi. What’s the first thing the driver says to you when you hop in a cab? Where to!? You don’t spend the first part of the conversation digging around in the past. So one of the things I do in my sessions is to ask the kinds of questions that get them thinking about where they want to go.
You’d think it would be easy. Just ask them hey what’s the solution? But if it were so easy they wouldn’t be sitting in your office. One of the tools you get taught to apply is silence. Ask the question and finish it with a big, fat, hairy pause. Ask, then drop the mic —
So that thing you want to have happen, how would that make a difference? … If it were going better, what would you notice? … Yes, but if you did know the answer, what would it be? …
I still feel the tension every time. As the seconds go by I can feel my instinct to help wants to jump in and re-explain, take some heat out of the room, be kinder, gentler.
And there’s tension because it can totally not work. I’ve sat there holding tension and what I thought was magic space, only for the client to just not want to take you up on the opportunity to go any deeper. They’re the ones I come away from going why didn’t that work, why couldn’t I make the connection work better so they felt safer and more comfortable to take a closer look at what was going on in there for them?
We now know in the literature around this that the thing that does work in the therapy session is the therapeutic alliance; the bond you form with another human who is willing to connect with you in a meaningful way right when you’re vulnerable.
There’s a saying therapists throw around —
Don’t save the client from their work.
And the silence is the work. The kindest thing I can do is to nurture that silence and wait for the client to use it to go from confusion and distress, to the other side of that tension, to progress and hopefully a little more clarity.
So I think I now realize what the lessons of hunting-the-good and sitting in silence both have to teach me, because I can see how they originate within the same family. Because that move it takes to deliberately show up and find the good in someone, to raise the subject of their good work again — out of nowhere — that takes something special. And it feels like the same special thing it takes to hold the silence for someone when within a few moments of an otherwise straightforward session they suddenly plummet into their deepest personal struggles.
And that thing is emotional labor. That’s showing up.
That’s the work.