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Nature and Texture of Silence In Coaching and Intervention

The video excerpt was taken from Anil's session with the ICF Chennai Chapter.

Most humans are never fully present in the now because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Silence is often misunderstood as mere absence, an emptiness void of sound or activity. However, true silence is anything but empty; it is a profoundly positive state, overflowing with music, fragrance, and light that are beyond ordinary perception. This silence is not fictitious; it is a reality already present within each of us, although often overlooked. In our extroverted world, our senses are predominantly outward-focused, exploring the external environment. The inner world has its richness, with its unique taste, fragrance, and light. It is a realm of profound silence, untouched by noise or words.

While the silence of the body and mind may be disturbed by illness or thoughts, the silence of the heart remains undisturbed, it is like the centre of a cyclone. It is that part, unaffected by the passing of time or the events of the world. This silence is the essence of our being, a sacred sanctuary of tranquillity amidst the chaos of life. In the presence of silence, the concept of time fades away, becoming peripheral. Gratitude arises spontaneously for everything – the sky, the earth, the sun, the moon, and all existence. The old world dissolves within this silence, and the old self ceases to exist. At this moment, the old identity dies, giving birth to a new life, infused with fresh energy and vitality. It's crucial to acknowledge and embrace our inner selves without judgement or resistance. However, we often get caught up in external factors like possessions, thoughts, and emotions, causing inner turmoil and suffering. True peace comes from disconnecting from these external aspects and connecting with the core of our being. By accepting, being aware of, and understanding our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, we can gradually dissolve the root causes of our inner conflicts. We can't battle the thoughts our minds produce, but we can observe them with detachment and curiosity, leading to deeper understanding. It's like trimming the leaves of a tree, if we focus only on trimming the leaves, new issues will arise. Addressing the root causes of our struggles is key to true transformation. By focusing on our core issues, we can cultivate genuine stillness and peace. Inner stillness isn't achieved through external methods but arises naturally from profound awareness and acceptance of our true selves. It's a state where time fades away, replaced by deep gratitude and peace.

Silence Is Not Stillness, But Stillness Can Have Silence The practice of silence holds a hidden power that extends beyond the moments spent in stillness. It gradually influences your daily life, teaching your body to remain calm even amidst challenges. Instead of battling or defending, you find yourself simply acknowledging and accepting.  Repeatedly returning to a state of stillness is like finding the key to unlock a prison door. Initially, you might feel trapped by habitual reactions, making peace seem unattainable. However, by allowing your mind to rest in silence, you gain clarity and objectivity. This perspective reveals the stressful nature of your reactions, making it easier to choose peace.

Embracing stillness creates space for profound introspection. Delving into silence allows you to connect deeply with yourself. You can release the need to constantly think and analyse, simply existing in a state of quiet presence. Here, there are no barriers or divisions—just the pure essence of your being, alive, loving, and completely tranquil. If this stillness  has to be forced then the result is uneasiness, or won’t be able to find silence or stillness will feel restless and the mind will keep wandering. When you address the noise, you may listen to shame, self-esteem, doubt, and the narratives you have been carrying out. Once you can address this peacefully and make space for it can you realize that certain past things may come up and you would be forced to meet with them, and if you run away it won’t go away it will haunt you even more, thus if you just address the noise, the chaos that undergoes when you are silent can you truly reach your highest self and extend the same empathy to others as well.

For the one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for the one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be his greatest enemy

- Bhagavad Gita, 6

However, silence in therapy can look very different. Silence in therapy can initially seem daunting, as it goes against the expectation that both parties engage in continuous dialogue. However, silence serves a crucial purpose, offering clients the opportunity to delve into their emotions, find deeper meaning, and summon the courage to explore vulnerabilities. It provides a canvas for deliberate and mindful communication, rather than simply talking to avoid discomfort. Embracing silence in therapy fosters purposeful reflection, allowing individuals to confront feelings of unease and delve into the root causes of their emotions. It challenges their ability to cope in the present moment and encourages them to draw upon the skills they've cultivated during therapy sessions. Practising mindfulness during these silent moments enhances the experience, enabling individuals to remain fully present with their inner thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, thus facilitating personal growth. In counselling sessions, silence plays various roles and carries different implications depending on its context and purpose. It can signify respect, curiosity, or encouragement for clients to delve deeper into their thoughts and emotions. Silence also offers space for clients to process information and prepare for their next steps. Moreover, it can express empathy and solidarity when words fall short (Berger & Rae, 2023). However, silence should be used judiciously as it may be misinterpreted or misused. Prolonged or frequent silence could convey disinterest or judgement, while abrupt or passive silence might hinder communication. It's crucial for counsellors to be mindful of how their silence is perceived and to employ it thoughtfully to foster rapport and active listening. Employing the same awareness in therapy could also enhance the overall experience of therapy. Research conducted by Sheryly May and colleague (2007)  revealed that mindfulness relates to well-being, burnout, and job satisfaction among therapists. Results from a study involving fifty-eight therapists revealed that higher levels of mindful attention and non-judgmental awareness were linked to better cognitive and emotional well-being, greater job satisfaction, and reduced burnout (May & O’dOnOVan, 2007). These findings support previous research suggesting that mindfulness is associated with enhanced well-being (Dlugos & Friedlander, 2001).  Overall, the study showcased the importance of considering therapists' mindfulness levels, as higher levels are likely to positively impact their functioning and effectiveness in client outcomes. When the counsellor is sitting across the table, extending their presence to their client, it's crucial to recognize this dynamic. If there is chaos or contamination within their internal state they might struggle to empathise with the client. It's as though you are hosting guests at home when you have no food available – you know they'll leave hungry or irritated. However, if you're mindful of what's lacking, you can replenish what's missing and be prepared to host guests. Having a clear, uncluttered internal state empowers you to be fully present in the moment. You can listen to the events your client shares without colouring them with your perceptions. 

Just as a mirror reflects our physical appearance truthfully, therapy mirrors the aspects the clients may have been unaware of or been avoiding. Confronting these truths, though uncomfortable, will foster personal growth by prompting us to address our issues rather than avoid them. However, therapists must create a safe space where clients feel comfortable being themselves. Being present and available helps in creating this environment, allowing clients to explore their reflections without fear of judgement and without being entangled in the webs of countertransference. When the Therapist’s internal state is calm and silent it allows the therapist to be mindful of the instances wherein transference would have occurred.

Can You Be a Mirror Without CounterTransference?

Transference in therapy refers to how patients react to their therapist based on their emotional, cognitive, and physical experiences. These reactions are more about the patient's attitudes than the therapist's actions and stem from their expectations shaped by past interactions with significant individuals. Transference happens when patients project past experiences onto their therapist, providing insight into their behaviour toward others. The same can be extended to the therapist as well which is termed countertransference. When the therapist projects their emotions or feelings onto their clients that is when countertransference has occurred. An essential part to note is that it is not that the therapist is deliberately acting out to behave in a certain manner during these times, rather it happens unconsciously. That’s why the background, the mood that the counsellor is coming from, and how aware they are of their internal state are quite essential. What personal aspects are you bringing into the therapy session? Are you coming in as someone who's recently experienced heartbreak and received a message from their ex? Perhaps you're feeling exhausted from dealing with your child's tantrums or frustrated with a difficult mother-in-law. Or are you showing up in the role of the therapist? The same applies to the client as well, as dual roles could lead to enmeshment within the client’s interpersonal as well as intrapersonal life. As a therapist, it is essential to differentiate and set boundaries because the personal experiences of a therapist too can sometimes negatively influence how they communicate and navigate the therapeutic relationship with their client. For instance, if the client's behaviour reminds the counsellor of their ex, who also felt guilty about a breakup and considered reconciling, it's crucial to recognize that their situation with the ex involved infidelity, while the client's situation may be different. Despite this, if the therapist finds themselves drawing parallels between their ex and their client the therapist should consider undergoing supervision. Countertransference can pose ethical challenges when therapists allow their emotions to influence their professional judgement. Failure to address and monitor countertransference may lead to unethical behaviour and harm to clients. A significant concern is when therapists engage in romantic or sexual relationships with their clients, which is both ethically and legally prohibited. Therapists must prioritise the well-being and safety of their clients, which includes refraining from any form of inappropriate relationships. Such actions violate professional boundaries and can have serious consequences for both the therapist and the client. If the therapist is aware of these certain intricacies during the therapy session it would help the therapist to navigate the therapy as well as be present in the therapeutic relationship. Research indicates that empathy involves not only emotional understanding but also physiological mirroring (Holmberg, 2023). When we empathise with someone experiencing negative emotions like pain, anger, or anxiety, our bodies undergo similar activation and arousal (Holmberg, 2023).

Understanding Empathy 

When people think of empathy they think of it as a disconnection for a short amount of time with your true desire to be fully present in the world of the client. Rather than seeing it as a disconnection, it can be seen as a connection through awareness. It is when you can set aside your own story and life instances and not draw parallels for the same, rather be present in the moment of what story is the client eliciting can you achieve real empathy. Empathy also allows for the other person to grow and flourish in the presence of the one who is eliciting it. It is like creating the right and natural environment for the sapling to grow and nourish, you allow it to grow and nurture it by watering it at regular intervals, you are also mindful to trim it and add fertilisers and the most important step is that you are patient with its growth. It is only when you can cater to those needs of the sapling that can you witness the unfurling of the bud and witness it blooming. 

Social neuroscience experts have put forth two theories to delve deeper into the phenomenon of empathy. Simulation Theory suggests that empathy occurs because individuals simulate or replicate the emotions they observe in others, allowing them to understand those emotions firsthand. This theory is supported by the discovery of mirror neurons, which activate when humans witness and experience emotions, and by the activation of specific brain regions responsible for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts (Shanton & Goldman, 2010). On the other hand, Theory of Mind presents a contrasting view, proposing that empathy stems from individuals' ability to understand and interpret the thoughts and feelings of others using cognitive processes. By employing mental models of human behaviour, individuals can anticipate or explain the actions of others. (Byom & Mutlu, 2013) 

While these theories present differing perspectives, it's likely that empathy involves a combination of automatic emotional responses and learned cognitive reasoning. Depending on the circumstances, individuals may experience one or both types of empathetic responses. According to Rogers (1986), empathy is not just a tool in therapy; it's a therapeutic force on its own. He believes it holds immense power in the therapeutic process as it can free, validate, and reconnect even the most fearful clients with society. Empathy is an expression of the counsellor's respect and appreciation for the client, whose experiences may differ significantly from the counsellor's own. It's crucial for the client to feel understood, validated, and respected. Holding a client therapeutically means the counsellor is capable of accepting and supporting the client through any challenges, concerns, or issues they may bring. The ability to empathise with another is enhanced by a keen awareness of facial expressions, body language, cues, intuition, pauses, and more. Above all, the therapist must establish a deep and accurate empathy with the client. This means fully immersing oneself in the client's world, understanding their innermost thoughts and feelings as if they were one's own, while always maintaining awareness of the distinction between their experiences and the client's. Accurate sensitivity to the client's being is crucial during therapy sessions, and it's not enough for the therapist to gain this understanding only after the session has ended. It's essential to convey this empathetic understanding to the client in a way that allows them to recognize and own their experiences. Unlike diagnostic formulations that focus on what's "wrong" with the client, empathic understanding empowers the client to freely explore their internal sensations and perceptions. This self-awareness enables the client to identify inconsistencies between their experiences and self-concept, paving the way for personal growth and a more integrated sense of self. Empathy forms the essence of our connections, enabling us to engage with life itself on a profound level. Genuine empathy transcends mere listening; it embodies a state of mindful awareness, encompassing an understanding of oneself, others, and the interconnectedness of all existence. As adults striving for autonomy, we must cultivate self-awareness, recognizing the power of our thoughts and actions. Developing empathy entails fostering a rich relationship with ourselves, marked by depth and significance. While empathy is often seen as a skill for interpersonal communication, its true significance lies in our internal dialogue. To navigate life with self-responsibility and fulfilment, we must prioritise our relationship with ourselves.

Empathy Is The Foundation Upon Which the Therapeutic Relationship Resides

New therapists often exhibit impulsivity or a rush to reach the solutions or how to find the quickest way to ease the client’s pain or suffering. But the point they miss out on is that, though the client needs to resolve certain issues that exist in their life, the therapist providing them with quick and easy fixes does not help them in the long run. Many newer practitioners tend to perceive a lack of instant gratification from their interventions as failure or resistance from the patient. This is a crucial aspect to be understood because if the therapist provides solutions and fixes to their issues, there is a possibility of either the client not approving of those solutions, complying with them to please the counsellor or simply coming up with newer problems. The list is endless, but the crux is that unless the client themselves become aware of what the issue has been they won’t be able to break away from the loop. Otherwise, it is the same loop that continues and they continue to suffer.Rather if they were to inculcate the practice of silence and empathy in their lives and take a pause between the scenario the client reiterates and your questions you will come to an awareness that they are likely to be more receptive and open to exploring the changes. But when you simply pause and be still and allow them just to share what they are doing without needing to provide solutions or add onto any intellectual questions, you will come to an understanding of accepting them the way they are and that is what would change the direction of therapy.

Q) When you reflect on your therapy sessions, do you find yourself trying to edit, add, or delete the experiences of the person you're listening to or counselling? Do you offer suggestions or share similar instances from your past experiences with them?

You can't see the world through their eyes, thus as a counsellor it is not your place to edit or suggest how they could have handled things differently. Instead, simply extending your awareness without feeling the need to compare, edit, or delete their experiences is what would aid the clients progress.  True empathy means resisting the urge to rescue your client and allowing them to undergo their transformative process. Imagine them as a caterpillar inside a cocoon. If you were to intervene and force their emergence prematurely, the butterfly within might never fully develop. The cocooning process is essential, providing the necessary pressure and folds for the butterfly to unfurl its wings later. Prematurely opening the cocoon would lead to the butterfly's demise, depriving it of the opportunity to reveal its true colours and the beauty of its wings. In the same way, the client in front of you does not need to be rescued, rather all you can do is extend your presence that is not clouded by your perceptions or past experiences. When you can cater to an open and safe space for the client, the client will gradually open up their worries and also take the next step of working upon aspects that are hindering their process. When you don’t judge their experiences you create an open platform for them to be their authentic self in your presence and that is essential for the unfolding of their wings. Rogers in one of his famous speeches talked about how being empathic involves deeply understanding and immersing oneself in the perceptual world of another person. It requires being attuned to their ever-changing emotions and experiences, whether it's fear, anger, tenderness, or confusion. Empathy entails temporarily inhabiting the client’s life without passing judgement, and delicately navigating through their experiences. It involves sensing meanings that the person may not even be fully aware of but refraining from uncovering feelings that might be too overwhelming for them (Carl rogers on empathy, 1974). Empathy also entails communicating your observations of their world, offering fresh perspectives on aspects that may cause them fear or discomfort. Importantly, it involves regularly checking in with the person to ensure the accuracy of your understanding and being guided by their responses. This helps them unravel facets of themselves and understand or get in touch with their feelings which they have been avoiding or suppressing and were not aware of.

Case Example (Rogers, 1974)

A client begins to express his frustrations with his father. He shares how he feels his father has never been there for him emotionally and how this has left him feeling let down.

Counsellor : (Gently probes): It sounds like you might harbour some anger towards your father.The client considers the suggestion but ultimately shakes his head.

Client: No, don’t think so.

Counsellor: Would you say you are dissatisfied with him?

Client: Perhaps.

Counsellor: Disappointed in him?

Client: Yes, that’s it. I am disappointed in him. I’ve been disappointed in him ever since I was a child because he is not a strong person.

This process allows the client to connect with and articulate their true feelings. It also emphasises the importance of accurately pinpointing the client's emotional experience, enabling them to engage with it authentically. By using the right words or phrases, counsellors can effectively tap into the client's underlying emotions and support their self-exploration. Counselling as a profession is one wherein the counsellor is bound to come across situations or client history which would have not been remotely related to them. For instance, maybe the client is sharing their history of being abusive parents who were addicts. Now a counsellor who would come from a healthy family would have difficulty relating to it or even telling the client to help them understand that they too have had a similar instance. Thus during instances like this empathy could be something that would be difficult to showcase if the person has not undergone a similar instance of the same, but that does not mean that the therapist won’t fully empathise with it. Assisting clients in seeing themselves truthfully, free from self-imposed beliefs or external judgments, allows them to rediscover their inherent worth and reconnect with their genuine selves. However, to guide them to this realisation, therapists must first confront their own inner struggles and achieve a level of self-awareness and acceptance. This process enables therapists to respond empathetically, even when their experiences differ from those of their clients. Empathy thus, involves sensitively identifying and acknowledging the emotional experience the client is currently feeling, allowing them to explore it fully. Another aspect that is related to empathy and is quite useful in intervention is that related to mindfulness. It is a useful way of connecting back in the here and now which is a quintessential tool required in any intervention or therapeutic setting. Among the various challenges encountered during therapy, one particularly difficult aspect is navigating through intense and distressing emotions. Patients often share stories of illness, loss, failure, and disappointment, which can evoke personal fears or overwhelm us with empathy for their suffering. Mindfulness techniques offer valuable strategies to build resilience against such emotional turmoil, enabling us to maintain focus and presence amidst distress. This skill is crucial for fostering a strong therapeutic bond because patients tend to reveal only what they believe we can handle. Conversely, our capacity to embrace a wider spectrum of emotions empowers patients to do the same. When the counsellor applies mindfulness to physical discomfort, they may discover that pain sensations are dynamic and transient, sometimes dissipating without intervention. Through concentrated practice, one can develop the capacity to endure various forms of pain, including emotional distress. One can learn to observe their thoughts and feelings from a detached perspective, recognizing them as passing phenomena rather than absolute truths. This enables them to redirect their attention to the patient and the present moment, rather than becoming entangled in our own internal struggles. Various studies have shown that mindfulness practices do indeed lead to a greater or enhanced sense of empathy and kindness, to oneself as well as others.  To explore the connection between mindfulness and empathy a research team designed an innovative study. The study involved two groups: a mindfulness group and a cognitive training group. Both groups underwent three weeks of online training, with the mindfulness group receiving mindfulness instruction and the cognitive training group receiving training without mindfulness components. After the training period, participants were asked to visit the research office under the guise of completing the study. However, upon arrival, they encountered a scenario where there were only two chairs occupied by unknown individuals from the research team (confederates), leaving no chairs available. Shortly after, a third confederate arrived, appearing to have a broken foot and using crutches. The individual visibly displayed discomfort and sighed audibly upon reaching the chairs. The researchers assessed participants' kindness by observing whether they offered their seat to the person with the apparent injury to alleviate their discomfort. The results revealed that participants in the mindfulness group were more than twice as likely to give up their chair compared to those in the cognitive training group (Lim et al., 2015). Recent research has explored the direct connection between mindfulness and empathy. In a study, participants were divided into two groups: one engaged in five minutes of mindfulness practice, while the other group was distracted for the same duration. Afterward, they underwent a test where they viewed images of people's eyes and had to discern the emotions portrayed. Additionally, they completed a writing task evaluating their empathy level. Surprisingly, those in the mindfulness group significantly outperformed the distraction group in accurately identifying emotions in the images after just five minutes of practice. Furthermore, the mindfulness group was perceived as more empathetic overall (Tan et al., 2014). A famous study conducted during the 1990’s highlighted a significant correlation between how therapists treat themselves and how they treat their clients. When therapists assessed their levels of empathy versus self-criticism, they found that these ratings closely aligned with their interactions with patients. Our practices shape our strengths. Considering that we relate to ourselves continuously throughout the day, our habitual ways of self-relating become deeply ingrained. Therefore, if mindfulness fosters a gentle, open, and inquisitive approach toward oneself, it nurtures the empathy essential for extending compassion to others. By embracing our experiences in this manner, we enhance our ability to observe them clearly and respond appropriately.


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