and adolescents are among the most proficient at employing silence as a weapon
in therapy. Marshall collaborated with one ten-year-old client who was especially
skilled at avoiding any interaction whatsoever through a variety of means
detachment, indifference, disengagement from anything the therapist might try.
Because this child was so brilliantly adept at ignoring questions, he was recruited
to help write a list of what it takes to be the most difficult client possible.
Marshall therefore suggested that if other children want to be like him and frustrate
their therapists, they should say only the following in response to any question:
It doesnt matter.
I guess so.
Thats about it.
It doesnt make any difference.
course, once the therapist and client had made a game out of their rigid patterns
of communication, making the rules explicit, they could laugh at themselves and
thereby remove some of the barriers preventing them from exploring other areas.
dont know! Of all the responses we get from the silent client, I dont
know may be the most difficult of all. Sack has catalogued several of the
most common ways a therapist might respond to a client who says I dont
know to any query that is initiated. I have presented the therapeutic options
in progressive order of how intrusive they might be. My assumption is that we
try to do as little as possible to produce the greatest impact. Only when our
most benign interventions fall on deaf ears should we resort to more potent strategies.
Power Options to the Client Response of I dont know.
Silence. Respond to silence with silence.
2. Reflection of content. It
is difficult for you to articulate what is going on for you.
of feeling. You really feel resentful that you have to be here to answer
4. Probe. What is it like for you not to know?
Labeling of behavior. Ive noticed that you say I dont
know a lot.
6. Invitation to pretend. Imagine that you did
know. Take a wild guess as to what form it would take.
I sense that you may know a whole lot more than you have decided to share
with me right now.
8. Self-disclosure. Im having a hard time
working with you when you answer I dont know so often. It is
as if you expect me to know what is going on inside you without your offering
These are just some of the response options that are available
to us when we are confronted with one common ploy passive resisters use to keep
us at bay. On a larger scale, there are even more interventions that are sometimes
effective in counteracting exaggerated silence or extreme passivity;
the behavior. You seem to be quite good at staying within yourself. Most
people cant stay quiet as long as you can.
10. Schedule a silent session.
Continued silence now becomes a cooperative response.
11. Prescribe the silence.
I appreciate your keeping so quiet. That will make it so much easier when
I discuss the problems with your parents. Id like you to stay silent so
I dont become confused by hearing your side of things.
structure. You dont seem to know what to do with our time together.
I wonder if it would be easier for you if I asked you a series of questions?
Provide freedom. I respect your desire not to talk right now. I am willing
to wait as long as it takes for you to open up.
14. Create a game. Ill
ask you a series of questions in which you wont have to say a word. Just
nod your head when I ask you a question or shrug if you dont know.
Use nonverbal sources. As it seems difficult for you to communicate verbally,
maybe you could draw a picture describing how you feel. Other variations
include bringing in photos, playing favorite music, playing a game, or going for
Your Power by Doing Less
I have read so many books and articles, attended
so many workshops, consulted with so many colleagues about child and adolescent
therapy that I can easily spout the party line. Provide a sanctuary of trust for
the child. Communicate with the child on his or her own level. As play is the
primary form of expression, do a lot of play therapy.
need to do something. Well, even with all the training I have had and permission
I have been given from supervisors I admire, I still feel the need to do something
in my work. Cases in point: I am seeing three adolescents right now whom I would
describe as difficult because they refuse to talk. Their parents insist they get
help, feeling guilty about the monsters they believe they have created, so they
drop them off at my office once a week for some brainwashing.
three boys are defiant and surly. They have declared to me that they may have
to come but they dont have to talk. Fine, I tell them, what,
then, would you like to do with the time we have together? I feel proud
of myself. I am being supportive, concentrating on being with them on any level
at which they can function. With one boy, we play cards poker and gin rummy.
He is not interested in learning any other games, and he will not respond to any
question if it does not relate to the game. Another boy brings a ball and we play
catch outside. He will not talk either, but I convince myself that on a metaphoric
plane we are communicating on a deep level. The third boy walks with me to a drugstore
where I buy him some chips and a Coke. He mumbles thank you and then promptly
real surprise. I have been seeing each of these boys for a period of months. I
cannot see that their behavior when they are with me has changed at all. We have
settled into a routine in which we know what is expected. The real surprise is
that the parents of two of the boys claim there has been substantial improvement
in their demeanor and school performance. Sometimes they are even nice to their
sisters. The parents think I am some kind of magician and ask me what Ive
been doing. "Trade secrets," I tell them. But I think to myself, "This
is ridiculous. No fancy confrontations or brilliant interpretations. I just play
cards and go for walks. I cant believe I get paid for this!"
why are these kids possibly improving? It must be that they sense I really do
care, that I am trying to help them. I try to be completely honest, and they know
I will not tolerate any crap. I suppose they also realize that I am in a position
to get them into even more trouble if they do not cooperate minimally. Maybe I
will even be able to do them a favor someday.
act of not doing psychotherapy is difficult for those of us who are so attracted
to progress and change. Yet passively resistant clients do not respond too well
to direct intervention. And sometimes with adolescents, the best therapy is to
suspend any therapeutic activity temporarily so they do not feel so cornered.
I suppose it is awfully arrogant of us to believe that nothing much happens in
therapy unless we make it happen; some of our best work comes from allowing resistant
clients to move along at their own pace and speed without having to cater to our
Donna C. Aguilera
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information on working
with the silent client. Write three case study examples regarding how you might
use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice.
What are some interventions to counteract the power dynamic with clients
who exhibit exaggerated silence? To select and enter your answer go to .
Which age groups are the most proficient at employing silence as a weapon in therapy? To select and enter your answer go to .