Silence and quiet: A phenomenology of wordlessness

Silence is the absence of speaking that psychoanalysis only understands by reference to issues of technique

By Bruce Reis

I would like to begin by making a distinction: to contrast silence not with speech, as is often done, but with quiet. Silence, I will assert, is the absence of speaking that psychoanalysis only understands by reference to issues of technique. Quiet, I will hold, is a more expansive term when thought of psychoanalytically, associated with lived experience in a relationship between patient and analyst. Quiet is an experience that I will refer to as embedded in a practice of psychoanalysis. A practice differs from a technique in that it is an engagement in the interaction that takes prominence over the application of a method. I should add at the outset that these terms, silence and quiet, have largely been used interchangeably in the psychoanalytic literature, so my separating them out is in part intended to illustrate the varieties of experiences of the silent and quiet analytic pair.

To speak of silence is to immediately speak of issues of technique (e.g., Arlow, 1961; Calogeras, 1967). The silence of the analyst has been considered a technical parameter of the analytic approach; the silence of the patient, a technical issue to be addressed by any number of interventions. I would assert that silence in the psychoanalytic setup can only be thought of as the absence of speech, given the original parameters of the talking cure. Silence is muteness, a refusal to speak when expected. This absence of sound is the condition that has conventionally been understood either to inhibit or facilitate the psychoanalytic process, depending upon whether it is performed by patient or by analyst. Wedded in this way to speech, silence is inseparable from considerations of method and methodology. It is thus bound to matters of control, science, and the rule-bound reproduction of a method—the psychoanalytic method.

Interpersonally, silence in the psychoanalytic setup is associated with terms such as withdrawal and withholding, when thought of from the perspective of technique. The patient withdraws into silence. The analyst withholds his reactions. Retreat, refusal, and detachment are the forms through which silence is always wedded to the absence of speech in the analytic dyad. Withdrawing and withholding are by definition positions that draw the individual back into him- or herself, and out of the relation. Such mute, narcissistic retreats reveal the solitary nature accorded to silence. One is silent alone. Silence renders one alone, out of contact, out of communication.

But is this always a problem? And shouldn’t there be a place in our theory for silent withdrawal? Winnicott (1963, p.188) importantly reminds us that “there is something we must allow for in our work, the patient’s non-communicating as a positive contribution.” He writes: “We must ask ourselves, does our technique allow for the patient to communicate that he or she is not communicating? For this to happen we as analysts must be ready for the signal: ‘I am not communicating,’ and be able to distinguish it from the distress signal associated with a failure of communication.” Here Winnicott gives us the kind of balance he often provides, this time by allowing for the psychoanalytic space of noncommunication to be one of positive solitude and privacy and for the action of withdrawal to serve as a basis for what he calls a “capacity for withdrawal” that underlies an ability for absorption in a task.

By contrast, quiet may be the absence of words, but it is not necessarily solitary. Where silence signals withdrawal and withholding, quiet marks a “with-ness” between patient and analyst. A child may be quiet, on the other side of the room from its mother, and be with her, that is to say, even be alone, in the presence of another, as the mother is with her child (Winnicott, 1958). It is not a withdrawal so much as it is a togetherness without words. They may be engaged with one another through eye contact, or may be involved in their own pursuits, but they are with each other in a way that does not evoke words like retreat, refusal, or detachment.

Quieting may be an active verb as well. When a mother attempts to soothe her overly aroused child she says “shhh.” She tries not to silence the child, but to calm her, to quiet her. Here we have the definition of quiet as the ability to be put at rest rather than to be silenced. An analyst calms her patient by speaking quietly, calmly, perhaps reassuringly; and the patient finds themselves taking deeper breaths, feeling less overwhelmed. Most often this occurs without conscious awareness, allowing the dyad to settle into a quieter place in the analysis. Perhaps they go on to discuss what had upset the patient so, but now they can do that without feeling danger or being overly alert. One person quiets the other, uses her own capacities to foster a decreased arousal in the other. One may be silenced, or one may be quieted.

An analyst is quiet, perhaps engaged in reverie. Not a retreat or detachment, but exploring the depths of unconscious linkage between the analyst and the patient. There is no technique to this dream space, only the ability to dream, and associate fluidly. The patient may be speaking during the analyst’s reverie, or he/she may not. But the feeling of an engaged, quiet analyst is completely different from that of a technically silent one. Here is an example of a silent patient and a quiet analyst. Again, it was Winnicott (1968) who advised the analyst to not seek understanding, or exercise the intellectual skills they have acquired in the course of being analysts. With a silent patient, Winnicott takes great care to not “put words in his mouth,” as the saying goes:

[A] rather silent patient tells the analyst, in response to a question, a good deal about one of his main interests, which has to do with shooting pigeons and the organization of this kind of sport. It is extremely tempting for the analyst at this point to use this material, which is more than he often gets in two or three weeks, and undoubtedly he could talk about the killing of all the unborn babies, the patient being an only child, and he could talk about the unconscious destructive fantasies in the mother, the patient’s mother having been a depressive case and having committed suicide. What the analyst knew, however, was that the whole material came from a question and that it would not have come if the analyst had not invited the material, perhaps simply out of feeling that he was getting out of touch with the patient. The material therefore was not material for interpretation and the analyst had to hold back all that he could imagine in regard to the symbolic meaning of the activity which the patient was describing. After a while the analysis settled back into being a silent one and it is the patient’s silence which contains the essential communication. The clues to this silence are only slowly emerging and there is nothing directly that this analyst can do to make the patient talk. (p.210)

In this quotation I think we can nicely see how silence and quiet may be thought not as opposed to each other, but in a dialectical relationship with each other, so that the analyst’s quiet, for instance, is a foreground phenomena, with the potential for his silence (as an artifact of his analytic method always present and informing the creation of quiet). The patient is allowed his silent withdrawal and Winnicott understands this as “the essential communication.” To quote Thomas Ogden (1999, p.123): “To privilege speaking over silence, disclosure over privacy, communicating over not-communicating, seems as unanalytic as it would be to privilege the positive transference over the negative transference, gratitude over envy, love over hate, the depressive mode of generating experience over the paranoid-schizoid and autistic contiguous modes.”

The analyst also needs to be quiet inside, to listen to what is happening, to listen to what gets set off inside of him when sitting with the patient. Speech tends to dispel this kind of inner quiet. This is what led the British Independent analyst Michael Parsons to recently critique relational approaches as “internally rather busy” (2009, p.264). Parsons finds an approach in which the analyst is busy disclosing their own internal process, asking the patient about their reactions to the analyst and their interventions and about what may be going on between them, as an impediment to a kind of deep listening to what is going on inside of the analyst. Parsons writes: “In the analyst’s inner world, just as with the patient, the responses which matter most are those that need time and space to surface out of the unconscious. I think we need to listen slowly” (2009, p.264).

The context of listening slowly is one factor that makes the psychoanalytic conversation different from ordinary social conversation. One cannot but live this kind of slow listening as a “being-with” the patient (Reis, 2009). Slow listening depends on a quiet that is not silence. The quiet analyst may be without words for some time before commenting on an experience. They may live through quite a lot with their patient and not necessarily seek to symbolize or make understandable after the fact what has transpired between them. For that matter, the quiet patient may be taking repose. He may have found an area of life where speech is not demanded of him. Ironic that in the context of the talking cure he finds the oasis of quiet that allows peace and space for reflection, a space to be alone, with his analyst. Sitting quietly with another person over time is one of the most intimate acts available to us as people.


Arlow, J. A. (1961). Silence and the theory of technique. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9, 44–55.

Calogeras, R. C. (1967). Silence as a technical parameter in psycho-analysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 48, 536–558.

Ogden, T. (1999). Reverie and interpretation: Sensing something human. London, UK: Karnac.

Parsons, M. (2009). Reply to commentaries. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19, 259–266.

Reis, B. (2009). Performative and enactive features of psychoanalytic witnessing: The transference as the scene of address. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 90(6), 1359–1372.

Winnicott, D. W. (1958). The capacity to be alone. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment, New York, NY: International Universities Press, 1965 (pp.29–36).

Winnicott, D. W. (1963). Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites. In The maturational process and the facilitating environment New York, NY: International Universities Press, 1965, (pp.179–192).

Winnicott, D. W. (1968). Interpretation in psycho-analysis. In C. Winnicott, R. Sheperd, & M. Davis, (Eds.), Psychoanalytic explorations (pp.207–212). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About the Author

Bruce Reis is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and a visiting faculty member at several psychoanalytic institutes in the United States. In addition to practicing in Manhattan, Dr. Reis lectures internationally, and serves on the editorial boards of numerous psychoanalytic journals. He is a member of the Boston Change Process Study Group.