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On The Use and Power of Silence in Groups

 by John Bernard Harris

Silences figure largely in the life of therapy groups; yet this is not a topic about which much has been written in the literature. A search through the index of a dozen groupwork texts reveals only three references to 'silence', and then only in the context of silence as a problem for group leaders and members, rather than a resource.

All of these references are largely concerned with 'the silent member', a person who is seen as a problem for group leaders. Thus Irving Yalom says in his standard work on group psychotherapy:




        "A silent patient is a problem patient; he rarely benefits from the group."  [Yalom 1975: p. 386].




The only work I have in my library which briefly discusses silence as a group phenomenon is (interestingly enough) Butler and Wintram's Feminist Groupwork [Sage 1991]. They say:




        "Group identity is manifested through the distinct energetic qualities of group  interaction, emotionally and physically charged. We have already conveyed the warmth of  co-operation, but the cold of silence and indifference, of absenteeism can precipitate  strong reactions from members...The weight of silence in the group may be oppressive,  embarrassing, uncomfortable." [ibid. p. 87-88]




They then go on to talk about 'the silent member'.

I can find no indication in my groupwork texts that silence might be a positive, healing force; and very little discussion of the creative use of silence in groups. Why is this? How does silences in groups come to be seen almost entirely as problematic? Before moving on to try to answer this question, we need to define our subject matter more clearly.


What is Silence?

At an individual level, being silent is not talking; that is, not using my voice to communicate with others.

It is important at the outset to confront the idea that my silence is essentially a form of non-communication. I can communicate silently and verbally (by letter); I can communicate silently and non-verbally, as when my wave tells you I have seen you across the street. I can also communicate silently, non-verbally and non-intentionally, as when my slumped posture and closed eyes indicate that I am bored by what you are saying. If, with McCluhan, we believe that the medium is sometimes the message, my non-verbal communications may be more truthful than my verbal ones, often precisely because they are non-intentional.

Group silences occur when everyone in the group is silent for a period of time. In a typical group silence, the silence, no-one saying anything, becomes foreground and is recognised by the group members as such; it becomes a Silence. It then becomes something other than a period in which no-one happens to be talking. In many group circumstances, the longer the silence is, the more 'loaded' and significant it seems. From the outset we should note that a group silence is a 'whole group' phenomenon par excellence. You cannot have a group silence unless everyone joins in. Creating a silence is therefore essentially a co-operative activity, and a complex form of group behaviour.


The Experience of Silence

How do we experience group silences? Our writers on groupwork seem not to be very fond of them. And the truth is that though people will vary in their ability and willingness to tolerate them, most dislike them. People may feel tense, anxious, embarrassed, uncomfortable, even panicky when they occur.

There is a vicious circle here: group silences have come to mean 'discomfort' for many people; and so that is how most people react to them. The 'silence is uncomfortable' view becomes self-fulfilling.

This is not to deny that are those who are comfortable with, even enjoy silences in groups; but in my experience, the former is by far the more common experience. So, given that silence in groups is experienced by many people as unpleasant, we must now enquire into the origin of this phenomenon.


Silence in the Family

I have discovered when asking people how they learned to dislike group silences, that many relate their discomfort to a feeling that the silence means that something bad has happened or is about to happen in the group, and then relate this directly to the silences which occurred in their family. I believe that many of the negative connotations attached to group silences derive from childhood family experiences in which silence was used as a power-play.

You can explore this for yourself using a guided fantasy. Imagine you are 5 years old, and coming home tired but happy from 'playing out'. As you go into the house, you find your parents sitting in silence. How do you feel...what is happening...?

Having speculated briefly on the origins of our discomfort with group silences, I want now to move on to talking about 'silences as a part of group process'.


Silences and Atmospheres

Silences in groups are generally thought of as having a tone or atmosphere. We say 'the group feels tense today'; and this means not that 'the group' is literally tense (only people get tense), but that there are enough tense group members for it to make sense to say that this feeling belongs to the group as a whole. Group moods can be expressed in all sorts of ways - by what is said, and by what is not said. Thus facial expressions and body postures, and actions all contribute to a group atmosphere.

As Dorothy Whitaker points out, group atmospheres in general are a central part of group life. In her description of 'the character of the group as a medium for help' she lists this as the first important characteristic of groups, and says:




        "Atmospheres and moods have an impact on individuals in groups...The effect on the  person can be beneficial or damaging depending on the meaning the affect has for him and  the resources which he can bring to bear for dealing with it...Some atmospheres support  the helping effort and some threaten to undermine it" [Whitaker 1985 p.33-34].




As an example she cites the example of a person who becomes depressed or fearful because of the group atmosphere, and is unable to deal with this, either because of her own mental state or because of poor group facilitation.


Silence as a Part of Group Process

In groups we can distinguish processes operating at three 'levels': individual, interpersonal and whole group. [Philippson & Harris 1992, Chapter 4]. A silent spell in a group can be considered as having a meaning at all three, as this brief fictional account shows:




        Susan arrives at the weekly management meeting. She is late again. She closes the door  noisily and looks sullen. The conversation between Mark and Molly which had been going on  ceases abruptly. Mark and Susan glare at each other. There is a long silence in the room.




For the sake of simplicity, I have divided silences into two kinds on the basis of how people in groups experience them: 'good' ones, which are easily tolerable and may even be enjoyed; and 'bad' ones which are experienced as uncomfortable or unpleasant. This is plainly one of the latter.

To understand the silence, we need to know that Susan is often late, and that last week several group members took this up with her, and there was an angry confrontation, after which Susan left 'in a huff'. In the current silence, individual group members feel variously angry, upset and scared; there is a frigid atmosphere between Susan and some other group members; and the mood of the group as a whole is tense and anxious. A very complex group process is underway.


A 'Force-Field Analysis' of Group Silences

One way to consider this kind of group process is to use 'force-field analysis' [Whitaker, op. cit. , and Lewin 1947]. In this kind of tense situation, there are opposing intra- and inter-personal forces which create 'silence as tension'. So Mark may want to say something to Susan, but fears that he will lose his temper with her. In this kind of situation, someone will be silent when the fear of silence is less than the fear of talking. Individuals like Mark will both want to speak (that is, after all, natural behaviour in most group and social situations) and at the same time be afraid to do so for reasons that will vary from person to person, but will usually be based on some imagined consequence if they do ("I'll be attacked, embarrassed etc.").

Of course, for a whole group silence to occur, everyone must remain silent. Group members will therefore sometimes collude (often at an unaware level) to maintain the silence, each for their own reasons. If each individual group member has reasons for not talking, silences will develop. A secondary dynamic, such as 'being afraid to break the silence' may then develop to complicate the situation even further.

Tense silences represent a powerful group dynamic, and can tie up a lot of group energy. People often leave such groups feeling exhausted and confused. In such circumstances, what is not acknowledged or said, rather than what is said is more significant, and controls the group's activity. The silence is also almost inevitably part of a power struggle in the group, and individuals may be using it (often in ways learned in their family!) as a weapon. This is one important aspect of 'the power of silence in groups'.



In my experience, individual group members (and groups as a whole) may consciously or unconsciously adopt one of several strategies to deal with 'bad' silences:

(i) Pre-emption: keep talking so that they never arise.

(ii) Resignation: just try to sit them out, and hope that someone will say something.

(iii) Avoidance: pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is happening.


...and Remedies

In calling silences simply 'good' or 'bad', I am referring to how people feel when in the midst of them. An uncomfortable silence may, of course, be part of a useful group process, if it is understood and dealt with skilfully. This might simply involve someone drawing attention to the silence, and asking what it means for individuals and for the group as a whole. Feelings and fantasies can then be explored. Such process work can be extremely empowering for a group, because in reflecting on the 'blind' or 'secret' areas of group life (as illustrated by Johari's Window), group members regain control of group behaviour.

However, in the majority of groups (many in work situations) where the level of awareness of individual and group process is not high, and group process facilitation skills are lacking, silences will often be experienced as simply 'bad', a group process to be endured, sat through. This is why many groups will prefer to avoid them as much as possible, by keeping talking.

As a result, many people seldom or never experience silence in groups as a positive condition. What would it be like? I begin to lay the groundwork for more positive images of silence.


Some Different Meanings to Silence

I want now to move on to look at some of the broader social meanings of silence.

People who are not experienced with silences in groups often describe them as periods in which 'nothing is happening'. Of course, as we have seen, the opposite is true. Individually, people are feeling and thinking all sorts of things; and in terms of their relationship to each other, they may all be actively co-operating (or covertly colluding) to keep the silence going. Staying silent is a complex group behaviour.

Why is talking valued more than silence in many situations? Consider work meetings. In how many are silences allowed to occur; and when they do occur, how many are positively used or experienced? I suggest that a view of silence as empty, wasted time is at the heart of this attitude.

My readings on 'Gender and Organisations' have led me to consider silence as a 'gendered' phenomenon. In particular, I am referring to Judi Marshall's discussion of two stances that man and women take towards life, which she describes as 'agency' and 'communion' [Marshall, 1984 p. 64]. As a life strategy, agency involves themes of control and independence; it is about doing. In contrast, communion as a life-stance involves interdependence and contact, openness and co-operation; it is about being.

Now men, and hence male-dominated societies and organisations, are typically agentic in their behaviour and beliefs. Achievement-oriented men (and women) have to be doers. And in our society, doing (or what passes for doing in organisations; distinguish what you do and what you actually achieve!) often involves talking. (Much of my former work life as a manager in a Social Services Department was taken up with endless meetings at which we talked...and talked...)

In this pattern of behaviour, talking is valued far more than listening. We might even say, cynically, that listening just wastes good talking time. Listening (for which you need to be silent) is typically a communion skill.

We can see this in terms of figure and ground. Agentic folk tend to focus on what is 'figural', what stands out in their experience, at the expense of the background, the context. They see a person, a topic, a piece of work as separate, and even unconnected with, its context.

Now when agentic people talk, the talking is figural. The background to me talking is you listening; but I fail to see it. The connection between my talking and your listening, remaining silent, is ignored or played down. And in this way of thinking, silence is undervalued; it's the talking which is valued.

Communion folk, in contrast, are 'contextually motivated'; they see the parts as inseparably related to the whole. The communion truth on this is that you can't have one without the other - talking without listening doesn't make sense. And in true dialogue, real contact, figure flows into ground and back into figure again, as I talk, then listen silently while you respond, then talk again.

Again: on the agentic view, silence is passive, not-doing, temporarily giving up control to the other. It is therefore not good. And this (Marshall and many others would argue) is the dominant perspective, both in terms of organisational and general social behaviour in a patriarchal society.

The connexion between silence and lack of control is important. Silences are 'unstructured' periods of time, and agentic people dislike lack of structure, just because it involves a loss of control. This psychological and social fear of 'unstructured time' has often been commented on; Eric Berne [Berne 1964] based a whole psychotherapy, Transactional Analysis, on describing the myriad ways in which we seek to fill time.


Silence as a Sign of Group Ease

Now is the time to remind ourselves that there are many important kinds of silence which are relaxed and enjoyable rather than tense and anxious. People who say "I hate silences" may never have experienced this quality of silence. This is the kind of silence in which group members feel relatively at ease with themselves and with others; it is peaceful rather than warlike. It is the silence of 'there is nothing I need or want to say at this moment'. It is the silence of rest and withdrawal, while we wait for the next thing to happen, in its own good time: the silence of 'the fertile void'.It is also the silence of meditation or prayer, from which spirituality and communion between people can emerge.

In my experience, groups need to spend some time together, and to have resolved some of the natural tensions of group life in order to experience these kinds of silence. They are one of the prime signs of a 'mature', well-established group. I would put it more strongly: in order to develop, therapy groups need to cultivate this kind of silence, and they become stronger and healthier for it. This is the positive power of silence, and I will now say more about it.


Reframing Silence

If we are to tap the positive power of silence, we need to continue the process of reframing it. One way to do this process is to appreciate the communion view (underlying, incidentally, the whole practice of therapy) that relating to other people, understanding their viewpoints and emotional needs is a necessity, rather than a luxury. According to Marshall,




        "In a conversational setting this approach is demonstrated in women's skills in  listening, but these are only one strand to a broader armoury of 'silence skills'. Such  skills are sometimes dismissed as 'passive' because they contradict the very strong social  norm that doing is good, but passivity is highly appropriate in certain circumstances.  Listening is one silence skill which has recently received some revised attention,  however, mainly for its benefits in non-directive counselling." [Marshall op. cit. p.  78]




As Marshall points out, listening in this setting has been named 'active' listening, to show that it is 'good'.


Developing a Communion View of Silence in Groups

In this section I am going to conclude by briefly identifying two areas which show important positive advantages to silences in groups. I hope thereby to encourage the view that many kinds of silences in groups are valuable, even essential to healthy group life.

(i) Developing silences as an important part of group process: We have elsewhere developed a Gestalt model of group process using the Gestalt 'contact-withdrawal' cycle [Philippson & Harris, op. cit.]. This model envisages groups as moving through a series of stages, which involve a 'pre-contact' phase in which a group want or need becomes 'figural'; a period of action and contact between group members; and a period of satisfaction and completion. This cycle, which may be short or long in duration, starts from a group state of relative withdrawal or rest, in which group members' contact with their environment is reduced.

As the cycle starts, this is the place where we as group members are waiting for something to happen. The group will have finished one bit of business, and be ready to move on to the next. In a healthy, well-functioning group it is a place pregnant with possibilities, full of the creative and collective power of group members, of potential energy and excitement. It is the 'ground' from which figures will soon arise according to group member's interests and needs. It is sometimes referred to as 'the fertile void', and during it, there will often be an expectant silence.

After the cycle has been completed, the group returns to 'withdrawal', but this time, there is a different feel to the group atmosphere. The group has worked hard, and now rests for a while. There is a feeling of satisfaction and peace. Soon, we will 'move on'; but for the moment we take a well-deserved rest. We may sit quietly, enjoying the silence.

If the group is not functioning as it might, it may 'interrupt' environmental contact at either point. At the start of the cycle, this might mean rushing though the withdrawal period and moving straight into another cycle before we are ready. At the end of the cycle, we again rush through, and do not allow ourselves to rest. Groups in which 'activity is all' - workaholic groups - will do this. The effects are varied; but range from a loss of creative potential, to burnout.

The conclusion from this model of group functioning is that groups need these two important kinds of silences, which both occur at the 'rest and withdrawal' stage of the cycle. They are to be welcomed, not feared, and are a sign of good health in the group life.

(ii) Non-Verbal Communication: It is a truism, and a highly significant one, that much human experience cannot be conveyed by words. Our feelings, our imagination can only be described clumsily and indirectly: words can never fully convey experiences. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that "What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence." [Wittgenstein, 1961]. As proof of this, we can all think of profoundly important moments in our lives when silence was an integral part of the experience. The silence spoke volumes.

I think that this is especially true when we think of human contact, how we relate one to another. I believe that much of what we feel for one another is shown rather than stated; and that we often use non-verbal communication as a primary means of person-to-person contact. Martin Buber, one of the great explorers of human contact and intimacy says in his great work I and Thou,




        "The relation to the Thou is direct. No system of ideas, no foreknowledge  and no fancy intervene between I and Thou." [Buber 1958]




And, we might add, at times no words either.

Groups of different kinds are settings in which we relate communally; and doing so is an important and defining part of our humanity. Feeling at one with others is a powerful experience, and the feeling is often most intense when we do not attempt to convey it with words. I can recall moments in large groups of 100 people when everyone was profoundly moved by something that had been shared by one member of the group, and the sense of power that I and others experienced in the reflective silence was unforgettable.

In such reflective silences we can turn inwards and become aware of ourselves - our individual thoughts and feelings - sometimes in a meditative way. But we can also look outwards and become aware of the other people who are present, and our inter-connectedness with them. This can, if we allow it, turn into a spiritual experience. For some this would be a sense of relating to God; for an humanist such as myself, it is a sense of being human and as such in relationship with all other humans. This is, for me, the ultimate gift of silence in groups.

If we have experienced such profound silences, and the communion which is involved in them, the whole experience of silence in groups becomes altered. Of course, most group silences will not have this depth of profundity; yet they can often, somehow, share in it, if we allow this to happen. It is important that we should.

John Bernard Harris 29/05/98



Judi Marshall [1984] Women Managers: Travellers in a Male World (Wiley)

Peter Philippson & John Bernard Harris [1992] Gestalt: Working in Groups(Manchester Gestalt Centre)

Sandra Butler & Clare Wintram [1991] Feminist Groupwork (Sage)

Martin Buber [1937] I and Thou (T. Clark)

Dorothy Stock Whitaker [1985] Using Groups to Help People (Tavistock)

Irving Yalom [1975] The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (Basic Books)

Kurt Lewin [1947] Field Theory in Social Science (Harper Row)

Ludwig Wittgenstein [1922] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge)


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