When Your Client Is Silent. Don’t Panic! Try Therapeutic Writing.

Is it down to making faces?

It happens: Your session begins in the usual way, either sitting in expectant silence, or posing an open-ended question. Your client looks at you blankly and says, “I really don’t have much going on today.”

You ask a few more pointed questions. No, everything’s going pretty well, actually. Yeah, feeling pretty good. 

Great. Session over? Time to talk sports? Share recipes? Therapist tap dance? 

Yikes, you think, so this is how it ends. There is an actual end to talking. Time to sign up for electrician school.

Yeah, no. First of all, yay, that there are no big fires brewing and your client sits in relative serenity before you. Secondly, go with it. Take whatever comes up, including “nothing” and go with it.

“No kidding, how does that feel?”

“Wow, tell me more.”

Perhaps because I’ve been a reticent, shy speaker at times in my life, I don’t freak out when clients have “nothing” to say. I put “nothing” in quotes because just because there are no immediate needs crowding through the doorway of the mouth to get out into broad daylight where they can be tended to doesn’t mean there are no needs and that the client is actually empty. 

And maybe because I’ve always found creativity a soothing and familiar backdoor to my psyche, I have naturally gravitated toward bringing that into my sessions with clients. Don’t forget, the back door is the one that leads to the kitchen table, where there’s a big slice of apple pie, or where the bills are piled up, several months behind, or where the report card landed when it came home from school. The back door is where it’s at.

So use the back door if that’s the one that’s open.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you can always invite your client to draw or collage. (Be sure to your copy of 40 Art Prompts for Therapy.)

Or, you could do a directed writing exercise.

The Internal Weather Report and the Care Label exercises are my favorite creative writing tools for therapy. They also work in group settings, where group members enjoy hearing other people’s ideas, and often play off of one another in collaborative ways.

How to use writing in therapy

Like all new things you try in your sessions, introducing writing can be intimidating. Just remember to treat it like everything else your client shares with you—and follow these few guidelines to have a successful therapeutic writing experience.

  1. Try it yourself first. Take one of the writing prompts, set a timer, give the instruction and start writing. Do this as many times as it takes for you to feel you’ve had experience with this modality. Notice all the emotions associated with writing for therapy: how much resistance or eagerness comes up, how it feels doing it, how it feels to contemplate sharing it. 
  2. Try reading it aloud, as you will request your clients do. See how that feels. What boundaries would you need to place around this? (I cover this in 40 Writing Prompts for Therapy.)
  3. Remember that writing can bring out more sensitive material than the client intends, surprising both of you.
  4. Writing can be freeing for some, inhibiting for others. It’s not for everyone. You’ll know, because the person for whom writing doesn’t click will either write a just few words and stop, or begin telling you the “answer” to your prompt verbally.
  5. Let the client decide what to share and what to do with the written material when the session is over. Agency over your own output is essential. Many people have creative trauma over people co-opting their work, deriding it, making it public when it’s meant to be private, and a thousand other painful boundary violations.
  6. Stay away from evaluative feedback language, such as “that’s really good,” even if you think it is. Stick with I-language when responding to a client’s shared writing. “I am so moved by your description of…” 
  7. Use the simplest prompts, even just one word. You’ll be surprised at how much comes out. 

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