Since January 2021, I have sat in on a weekly interpersonal processing group at my graduate school’s department clinic. The George Washington University Center Clinic is a community mental health clinic that offers a sliding scale fee structure. This not only allows many members of the community to receive psychological services at an affordable rate, but like many community clinics, the range of psychological functioning of these patients can vary significantly in severity. The Center Clinic offers various psychotherapy groups to patients including a women’s group, an interpersonal processing group, and an international students’ group. Silence in these psychotherapy group settings has been written about at length: leaders purposefully communicating through their silence, members interacting nonverbally, silence as a defense or defiant reaction. However, these are all instances in which engaging in silence is a choice.
Literature on the experience of group observers who perpetually sit in silence is niche and thus, there is less research available on the topic. In my experience as a silent observer processing one of the many groups at our clinic, I find myself uniquely immersed in a position that toys the line between authority figure and patient. I am neither in my role as a therapist, nor can I participate as a group member; this limbo of silent analysis calls for me to hold both the emotions of the group and my own impulses to interject as a facilitator.
I became acutely aware of this inner tension during a session in which one member, who traditionally stays quiet and only shares with intention, had returned to the group after being absent for two weeks. Upon her return, she shared that her last-minute absences had been due to a “family emergency.” She went on to describe the heart wrenching details of how she was informed that her younger sister had died suddenly. From the little that I knew about this patient, I was aware that she had a close bond with her sister and that she referred to her younger sister as her “best friend.” The entire session centered on comforting this group member and talking about grief, anger, and loss. One of the group facilitators spoke of how the mundane tasks of daily life, such as sending work emails and doing laundry, become unnatural and bizarre in the numb aftermath of death. The palpable vulnerability felt amongst the group leaders and other members fostered a closeness that I watched unfold in my silence.
This is only one example of how groups can come together when a member needs support. However, as is the norm for most interpersonal processing, the contributions of group members adapted to the situation at hand. This member, who normally speaks very little in group, spent nearly the entire session sharing about the unimaginable loss of her sister. Other members that take up more space in the group each week took a step back, offered their condolences, and shared their own emotional associations to grief. Similarly, the group leaders modified their interventions during this session to be more supportive to this member and to the group. As for me? I remained silent as always.
The role of being a silent observer has been especially difficult in these moments of intense emotion. Witnessing the group discuss family deaths, work out interpersonal conflicts, process loss when group members leave, all with the added layer of working through these topics virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been enriching and emotionally complicated. I have watched vulnerability bring members and group leaders together, while I maintained my muted position on the outside. I have been more aware of how I can demonstrate my support through my body language: nodding, an empathic smile, laughing along with the group. Yet, I wonder what it will be like when this cloak of silence is turned over to the next observer. Will the members hold my silence against me? Have they experienced my presence as voyeuristic?
There is a way in which silence equates to powerlessness. Not having the opportunity to contribute a brief comment or join in the group’s audible laughter left me wishing that I could participate in the human connection they shared. My discomfort with silence pushed me to explore what I was experiencing internally. Gans and Counselman (2000) write about the power of silence in group psychotherapy, stating: “silence can be a precious gift of time and space in which to find oneself.” The assertion that silence and self-exploration go hand in hand is only true if we are willing to make use of the space within the silence.
Although my role as observer has lasted less than a year, the transition from observer to group leader feels seemingly immediate and abrupt. There is an internal pressure to somehow seamlessly shift from being a shadowy, silent outsider to holding this position of authority with confidence and grace. Yet, the vulnerability I have witnessed from group members and facilitators alike has stayed with me. I question how to appropriately incorporate what I have learned about each group member and the group dynamic into my own interventions when I step into my leadership role. Will they feel intruded upon, or will I be welcomed as a friendly face? Perhaps this period of sitting in silence will be helpful as I come into my own as a group leader. After all, silence can be therapeutic in many aspects. I have been able to sit back and watch when the current group leaders intervene and when they allow the members to process on their own. I only hope that the resounding silence I sat in will inform my own growth as a clinician and individual, as well as strengthen my voice as an upcoming group leader.
Gans, J. and Counselman, E.,(2015) Silence in Group Psychotherapy: A Powerful Communication. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy: Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 71-86.