I visited the exhibition ‘Transmitting Andy Warhol’ at Liverpool Tate and was struck by Warhol’s 8 hour film of the Empire State Building – his comment on the film was ‘When nothing happens, you can think about everything’
This idea really struck home for me in counselling practice. Sometimes, during a session, ‘nothing’ happens. The client is silent and it feels awkward. As the listener, I feel obliged to fill the silence with another question, or a suggestion, or some paraphrasing of the client’s words. To fill the silence I’ll be wandering about in my head thinking of something to say and casting about to find something that makes me look clever, sensitive or competent.
Silence is a hugely potent force – in ordinary conversation we often use it to show disapproval, unhappiness, sulking and disbelief. Rogers (1951) cautions that silence from the therapist sometimes prompts the client into projecting meaning into that silence. However, a brief respite from the constant babble and inflow of information and stimuli can, I believe, offer a space for the client to ‘think of everything’ and its meaning to her/him right now. It allows me a space to absorb what the client has already offered and to process how that feels for her/him. We rarely get a space where truly nothing happens and maybe I should take the risk of offering that ‘nothing’ more often in the counselling session rather than trying to fill it with me.