What to say when you’re a therapist who doesn’t know what to say

We’ve all been there, especially in the early days of being a therapist. A client says something unexpected or talks about something you know very little or nothing about. Or maybe they say something that directly mirrors your own life or triggers a strong reaction in you.

At that moment, you may have found yourself uncertain of what to say. Fearful of saying the wrong thing, giving away your initial emotional reaction to the content or the client thinking you aren’t an expert.

As therapists, we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always know what to say and offer a client. We are driven to be helpful. We may criticize ourselves harshly if we don’t know. Even though psychotherapy is built on the premise of curiosity, not making assumptions, and working collaboratively with clients (which by the way does mean that clients hold some of the responsibility for the relationship, a fact many therapists forget).

All of this makes the space of not knowing what to say excruciating for many therapists. So excruciating that can lead to anticipatory anxiety prior to client sessions and feeling very nervous in the room. The fear of not knowing what to say and the demands of our inner critic create a pressure cooker situation in which being a therapist is not an enjoyable experience.

So what can you say when you don’t know what to say.

The most important thing is to say something.

This something can be very small. A tiny vocalisation that indicates to our clients that we are with them, we are listening, and that we have heard our client. It says “I am here with you, and I want to understand”.

These vocalizations are the ones we are all pretty familiar with and probably discount. You know then as “mmm, ahhh, I see”. When we offer these small vocalisations we offer continued engagement with our client. See Deb Dana’s excellent book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy about how these small connection attempts help regulate our clients and are a much better option than silence.

I will often say “Thank you for sharing that. I’m just considering what will be most helpful for you right now or how I can help you with this” as a way of pausing and giving myself some space to find what might work.

If it’s content you really don’t know or feel comfortable talking about and the client isn’t able to educate you enough that you can roll with it’s ok to say that. “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s not something I know a lot about, but I will look into it between now and the next session. I feel it’s important to know more about it so I can help you best”.

You don’t have to know exactly what to say.

You do need to connect with your clients and show that you want to understand and more importantly, that you care about understanding your clients.

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