Once the illusion of some warm nurturing quality to our helping work had begun to give way to a more realistic sense of what we are engaged with, it was possible to think a bit more creatively about this worker – client tension, not as a disappointing distraction from what we had set out to do, but as a feature of the work to be understood and applied.
A significant part of my training experience concerned the use of silence – it was subject to some mockery and misuse I fear. Rather ludicrously, our experience of being ‘taught’ social psychology, was of the tutor coming to seminars, it seemed to wait and see what we thought about things. Since we didn’t think much about social psychology and had very little idea what it was supposed to be, we all promptly failed. The therapist’s apparently passive waiting for the client to reveal what? was also easily mockable, and yet silence was often provocative and in the right hands, a powerful engine for discovery.
The notion that the client is responsible for their problem and the therapist should therefore wait to see how the client chooses to present it, has some force in some settings, and can inform the approach to challenging work in all kinds of circumstances. It is not easy to align this with the range of comprehensive assessment tools that operate these days in most helping services, since these tools pose the risk that the worker is presented as knowing more about the client’s problem than the client him or herself, and as knowing all the questions that need to be asked. (I’ll return to this.) If however the worker is starting on the assumption that they should not take over the client’s responsibility for their problem, it is important that they recognise everything the client brings as communication – silence for example works both ways.
There was a time in my life when I went for help to a therapist. It was a disappointing and in some ways distressing experience, but it was certainly confusing. My therapist took the ‘silent waiting’ route, but I had no real idea what my problem was, nor what I was looking for from therapy. I can look back now and see all kinds of things that I did not understand then. I had lost my way in my marriage, had fallen in love with someone whom I kept as a rather idealised fantasy figure but was paralysed by guilt about what was happening to me. Faced with the therapist, I found myself totally clammed up, unable to speak, unable to think how to use the session. Unfortunately my therapist did not seem to see this paralysed clammed up state as the problem I was taking to him – he just continued to wait for me to articulate something. Eventually, I gave up.
A little while afterwards, I attended a conference on attachment theory in London, and although I cannot now recall the details, I do know we were shown a film about a young boy in distress who was unable to speak. The worker in this case had the wisdom to see this silence as an important communication about his state and gradually to enable the boy to begin to see the anger and misery that maintained him in that silence. The boy of course began to find a voice. I was completely spellbound by this and began to cry as if I were that boy emerging from the silence.