Reel Therapy: The Importance of Silence

A topic that often comes up in my psychotherapy classes is the importance of silence within the therapeutic session. Frequently, this discussion elicits the most comments from classmates, who talk about their discomfort with the idea of gaps in the dialog when interacting one-on-one with another person. It’s true that in an extroverted society such as ours, contemplative silence – especially when in the company of others – is not the norm. Also, beginning therapists often make the mistake of talking too much and trying to push their clients to talk, rather than allowing for a psychological space to open up into which the client may enter on their own.

I recently watched the film Drive and spotted a great example of the use of silence to create an opening for someone who wants to talk but is initially resistant. Throughout the film, Ryan Gosling’s character – simply called Driver in the credits – is what we would refer to as the strong, silent type. He doesn’t talk much, to anyone, and often you can see that his neutral presence creates a safe, comfortable space for those around him (at other times, though, his silence makes him a recipient of other characters’ projections, but that’s a topic for another post). This is most notable when he is with his love interest, Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The interactions between Driver and Irene are the exact opposite of what you might expect from a typical romance movie, in which the man and woman banter, joke and chitchat to the inevitable conclusion. Instead, here they are comfortable with long stretches of silence between them, punctuated by nothing more than a glance or a light touch.

In the scene that I selected, Driver is talking with Standard (Oscar Isaac). Standard is Irene’s husband and Benicio’s father, and was recently released from prison. In this scene, he has just been beaten up by a group of thugs who are trying to intimidate Standard into doing a robbery for them. This creates tension for Standard, as he wants to move beyond his criminal past for the sake of Irene and Benicio. Driver starts in the living room, sitting silently with Benicio, then goes to check on Standard and find out what happened. Things to look for:

  • Driver asks few questions verbally. He communicates a lot with a simple tilt of the head or questioning facial expression.
  • Look for Standard’s big sigh (of relief?) when he decides to open up and talk to Driver, after initially reacting to Driver’s opening question with resistance.
  • Note how much information Driver elicits from both Standard, and later Benicio, with only a few well-placed questions.

[FYI: I’ve edited out offensive language – those are the blank spots in the dialog. But Standard is a little bloodied from the altercation, so it might be a bit graphic for some viewers. Because of that, I would rate this clip PG-13.]

Remember, in most cases your clients want to talk to you. That’s why they are there. One of the biggest gifts you can give them is to create a safe, quiet space in which they are free to open up at their pace and in the manner they choose. Here’s a final thought, courtesy of the pyschoanalyst Glen Gabbard (via the blog In Therapy by Ryan Howes):

“If gentle inquiries about the origins of the silence fail to re-engage the patient, a therapist might wish to say, ‘Maybe you’d prefer to sit in silence together for a while.’ The therapist conveys not only acceptance of the silence but also a message that the patient is not alone during the silence.” (Long Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, p. 101)