Open Search
Open Navigation

What to Do When a Client Shuts Down in Therapy

couple in therapy
Reviewed By
Published on: 12/08/2023
Last Updated: 12/08/2023
13 minute read

If dialogue is the bedrock of quality therapy, what can a therapist do when their client turns reticent or even silent in a counseling session?

It’s a ubiquitous concern: According to a roundup of the biggest challenges therapists face in their professions, unresponsiveness is second only to attaining work-life balance.1

Bouts of quiet are a completely natural part of the therapeutic process.2 And yet, there are several meaningful ways to urge a client out of their shell and help them remain engaged in the conversation. 

Here’s how to get a client to open up in therapy—and why it’s crucial for successful results. 

Explore our Psychology Programs

What Causes a Client to Shut Down?

But first, why would a client suddenly become wordless in therapy, especially if they’re typically talkative and they participate in counseling sessions? The potential reasons for this are as varied as a therapist’s caseload. The client may be:

  • Distracted
  • Ambivalent
  • Overwhelmed
  • Disassociated

Additionally, they may be reflecting on their thoughts and emotional response or processing an idea you just posed or the manner in which your question or remark was phrased (more on this, later).

The Window of Tolerance

All of that said, “shutting down” is what Freud identified as “resistance” and what clinical professor of psychology at the UCLA School of Medicine Dan Siegel might call outside of the client’s “window of tolerance”—a metaphorical emotional space where clients may be able to withstand the sensations and negative feelings that arise for them.3,4  

Why do people fall outside of this window of tolerance? It could one of a handful reasons, such as: 

  • An environmental stressor 
  • The recollection of a traumatic event
  • A question or topic that provokes trepidation, anger, or grief

Whatever may have prompted it, a client may experience hyper- or hypo-arousal, with the latter manifesting as shutting down.5 In some cases, and in many ways, the act of shutting down operates as a survival tactic to mentally withdraw from emotional distress.

Recognizing the Signs of Client Shutdown

The first step in gently encouraging your client to return to the dialogue at hand is to recognize how shutting down exhibits itself. Generally speaking, it may appear as:6

  • A lack of eye contact
  • A “frozen” posture
  • A look of spaciness on your client’s face
  • An expression of fear
  • A sudden stop in your conversation

Naturally, signs of dissociation vary considerably among clients. However, if you’ve been working with your client for some time and have a solid grasp on their personality and communication style, you may simply be able to intuit when they have pulled back.

The Importance of Validation

Newer therapists may interpret their client’s taciturnity as a reflection of their own inadequacy—or a symptom that the therapeutic alliance they have has been threatened.7

The latter may be the case at times, but rather than dwelling on the whys behind it in the midst of a counseling session, it’s vital to reassure your client that they’re in a safe space where their emotions are validated. 

You may try to incorporate “encouragers” along these lines:

Example of Phrase 1: “I can see that this is difficult for you. It’s okay to feel this way.”

Demonstrating compassion is central to an ongoing dialogue that strengthens the rapport between you and your client; it’s also one of the keys to fruitful outcomes.

Indeed, findings reported in Cogent Psychology indicate that empathy is one of the most telling measures of a solid therapeutic relationship.8

Example of Phrase 2: “Your feelings are valid, and I’m here to support you without judgment.”

Acceptance is also crucial to a healthy and productive therapeutic alliance.9

Statements such as this may remind your client that your job isn’t to criticize them. It’s to listen—and provide a way forward.

Creating a Safe Space

The issue of safety is paramount in therapeutic settings. To this end, you’ll want to guarantee that your physical space promises confidentially. Ideally, your space should be:10

  • Absent of distractions, like a ringing phone
  • Away from the possibility of eavesdroppers (such as ensuring your door is locked)
  • Equipped with furniture and decor that promotes a sense of comfort and calm

Providing a Nonjudgmental Environment

Safety extends beyond the literal, of course. For some clients, therapy may be the only place where they feel secure enough to reveal their vulnerabilities.

The answer to “What to do when a client shuts down in therapy?” hinges on illustrating this through your words.

Example Phrase 3: “This is a safe space where you can express yourself freely.”

This should be established from the get-go of your work with any new client. And yet, you might also choose to reiterate this if they start showing signs of disengagement. While doing so, be sure to use a warm, soothing tone of voice.

Encouraging Emotional Expression

Right beside this is the fundamental need to embolden your client to delve into and express their emotions—whether that’s:

  • Resentment
  • Exasperation
  • Sorrow

One way to let them know that they’re safeguarded against judgment or from falling down the proverbial rabbit hole of their negative emotions, is to say something along the lines of the following:

Example Phrase 4: “I’m here to help you navigate these emotions and understand them better.”

It can be terrifying to address a traumatic memory or emotional pain—particularly those that have been burrowed. The safe space you’ve created is the optimal spot to excavate them. You can reassure your client of this by repeating Example Phrase 4, as well as reminding your client that you are there to help them:

  • Recognize and name their emotion 
  • Return to a state of homeostasis (or emotional balance)
  • Develop a healthy coping mechanism

In this sense, you act as a coregulator of emotions—which may save your client from becoming retraumatized, or plunging deeper into disassociation.11,12

Explore our Psychology Programs

Strategies to Encourage Clients to Open Up

In addition to the techniques already listed, how to get a client to open up in therapy is also dependent upon these techniques and practices:

Build Rapport

A large body of research indicates that the relationship shared between a therapist and their client(s) is of utmost importance.13,14 Not only will the following practices on how to build rapport with clients potentially fortify the bond you have with even the most reserved clients, but it will also provide you and your client with a blueprint for your work together:

  • Discuss, and determine, what your client hopes to achieve in therapy
  • Arrive at an agreement that underlines the role your client plays in the treatment process
  • Commit to developing a relationship of mutual respect and collaboration

This can serve as the foundation for your time together—and give you something to refer back to when your client has removed themselves from the conversation. 

For example, you could say, “Remember when you said you wanted to talk more about this traumatic event? Take all the time you need to sit in silence, but perhaps we can return to it today, during our next therapy session, or whenever you’re ready.”

If you're wondering about the practical aspects of a therapist's workload, you might be asking, "How many clients do therapists have?" That will depend on the therapist and their working hours. With a larger number of clients, therapists might find it challenging to allocate sufficient time to understand each client's unique needs, concerns, and background. Establishing trust and a sense of safety, crucial elements in building rapport that can be compromised when sessions are rushed or infrequent.

So, be sure to be mindful of your workload. This will help in fostering a stronger and more personalized connection. Furthermore, this allows for a better understanding of the client's history, emotions, and goals, contributing to a more effective therapeutic process. 

Master Active Listening

Active listening is fundamental inside and outside of a therapeutic setting. It can be conveyed through: 

  • Offering your client a summary of what they have said to you—again, in a calm, inviting voice
  • Providing your clients with statements that may propel them to continue speaking, such as “I would love to hear you elaborate on that, if you’re comfortable with it”
  • Refraining from interrupting
  • Clarifying concepts that are unclear to you

But what can you do if your client plummets into a stretch of silence? 

Many experts suggest letting clients stay in silence for a spell, and softly saying phrases such as, “I understand why you would need some time and quiet to process (or absorb) that. I’m here when you’re ready to examine it again, or we can just sit here.”

Alternatively, some clients may want to turn toward a different tactic, such as drawing, listening to music, or engaging in one of the other modalities you might offer, like EMDR. 

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Let’s return for a moment to our initial statement: Dialogue is the bedrock of quality therapy.

Sustaining a conversation—or reigniting one that has come to a brisk halt—relies in part on asking clients open-ended questions that require more than a few words to answer. These might sound like:16

  • “How did that make you feel?”
  • “What strategies have helped you feel better in the past?”

In sum, open-ended questions are aimed at coaxing your client to speak candidly and to approach, acknowledge, and analyze their inner experiences.17

Offer Reflective Responses

Reflective responding is similar to “active listening:” It’s a skill employed to assure your client that you’re not only listening but are also empathetic to what they feel, think—and have experienced.

Recapping what your client has revealed to you is one way to accomplish this. You may also want to “mirror” your client by reflecting, if it’s appropriate, and if it suggests warmth, inclusion, and acceptance, their:

  • Inflection 
  • Posture
  • Body language
  • Facial expression

Together, these work to help your clients feel heard, accepted, and understood.

Emphasize Empathy

The role that empathy plays in modern psychotherapy cannot be overstated. 

Carl Rogers, an American psychologist and the founder of client-focused, humanistic psychology, is often credited as one of the pioneers of employing empathy (as well as authenticity) in therapeutic settings.18 But we’d hazard to suggest that empathy has been around since the beginning of time. 

Active listening, appropriate body language, and reflective responses—all are effective means for emanating empathy. You can also use intentional or pragmatic, self-disclosure to demonstrate empathy.19 Here’s an example:

  • “I hear you feeling overwhelmed with grief—and about your feeling that it will never go away. I found myself in a similar situation years ago. But I also found that, with time, my sadness dissipated.”

Should you choose to address your own vulnerabilities to show compassion, just be sure to also employ brevity to ensure the focus of your therapy sessions remains where it should: on your client.

Adjust Your Pacing

Whether you’ve been practicing for some time or have just started exploring careers in the field of psychology, you likely know that the “therapy hour,” or the time you have with clients, usually runs between 45 and 50 minutes.

Given your time constraints, it makes sense that you might want to pack in as much as possible in the name of your client’s growth. But, paying attention to the pace of your therapy session—including the tempo of your speech and the timing of your questions—can play a huge role in your session.

The point is to “listen” to the non-communicated clues as to what works best for your client. If they seem to respond better to a slower pace and are given the time and space to open up when they feel ready, you’ll accomplish next-level empathy and acceptance—and may naturally spur them out of their silence.

Practice Self-Awareness

Perhaps,above all, it’s important to practice self-awareness consistently. A harsh question, an unfeeling response, or even a look of annoyance or impatience on your face might cause your client to detach.

How to Become a Better Therapist

What to do when a client shuts down in therapy is ultimately contingent upon the individual client. Some clients may benefit from empathetic questions. Others may respond better to being “allowed” to sit in their silence to reflect upon, process, and integrate their emotions.

Deciphering what may be the savviest tactic for a client who disassociates is one of the countless skills you may accrue when pursuing a degree in psychology at Alliant International University. If you're considering a career as a clinical psychologist, you might be wondering, "What degree do you need to be a clinical psychologist?" At Alliant International University, the comprehensive psychology programs provide the necessary education and training to embark on the path toward becoming a successful clinical psychologist.

With different levels of degrees from which to choose—such as an MA in marital and family therapy and a PsyD in clinical psychology—you can plot out the educational path that will satisfy your academic and professional aims. Plus, the in-person and online psychology programs at Alliant are designed to provide you with the education and experience you need to thrive as a therapist—no matter where you might reside.

Reach out to Alliant today to discover what awaits in the rewarding realm of psychology. 


Sources: 

  1. Bisma Anwar, LMHC. “11 Challenges That Counselors & Therapists Face.” Talkspace, July 26, 2023. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/counselor-challenges/. Accessed November 15, 2023.
  2.   Jackson, Michael R. “Working With Silence.” Working with silence, April 1, 2019. https://www.psychotherapy.net/blog/title/working-with-silence. Accessed November 15, 2023.
  3. “Resistance in Therapy.” TheraPlatform, 2023. https://www.theraplatform.com/blog/328/resistance-in-therapy. Accessed November 15, 2023.
  4. Wright, Annie. “What Is the Window of Tolerance, and Why Is It so Important?” Psychology Today, May 23, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/making-the-whole-beautiful/2022…. Accessed November 15, 2023.
  5. Buczynski, Ruth. “How to Help Your Clients Understand Their Window of Tolerance.” NICABM, November 21, 2022. https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their…. Accessed November 15, 2023
  6.  DeAngelis, Tori. “What Should You Do If a Case Is Outside Your Skill Set?” Monitor on Psychology, May 2018. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/05/ce-corner. Accessed November 15, 2023.
  7. Kadur, Jennifer, Jonas Lüdemann, and Sylke Andreas. “Effects of the Therapist’s Statements on the Patient’s Outcome and the Therapeutic Alliance: A Systematic Review.” Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, March 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7187422/. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  8. Kaluzecicute, Greta. “Full Article: The Role of Empathy in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A ...” Taylor & Francis Online, March 22, 2022. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311908.2020.1748792. Accessed November 15, 2023.

  9. Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD. “What You Can Do to Help Others Feel Validated.” Verywell Mind, November 14, 2022. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-validation-425336. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  10. Team, BetterHelp Editorial. “Designing Your Therapy Space.” BetterHelp, October 19, 2023. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/general/how-to-design-your-therapy-sp…. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  11. Soma, Christina S, Brian R W Baucom, Bo Xiao, Jonathan E Butner, Peter Hilpert, Shrikanth Narayanan, David C Atkins, and Zac E Imel. “Coregulation of Therapist and Client Emotion during Psychotherapy.” Psychotherapy research : journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, June 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7233481/. Accessed November 15, 2023.

  12. “Co-Regulationwhile  While.” Complex Trauma Resources, August 26, 2020. https://www.complextrauma.org/glossary/co-regulation/. Accessed November 15, 2023.

  13. Scarvaglieri, Claudio. “First Encounters in Psychotherapy: Relationship-Building and the Pursuit of Institutional Goals.” Frontiers in psychology, December 15, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7769839/. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  14. Kadur, Jennifer, Jonas Lüdemann, and Sylke Andreas. “Effects of the Therapist’s Statements on the Patient’s Outcome and the Therapeutic Alliance: A Systematic Review.” Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, March 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7187422/. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  15. Grande, Dianne. Active listening skills | psychology Today, June 2, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-it-together/202006/active-li…. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  16. Holmes, Leonard. “Why Are Therapists’ Questions Open-Ended?” Verywell Mind, March 31, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/open-ended-questions-2330693. Accessed November 15, 2023.

  17. Kleiven, Gøril Solberg, Aslak Hjeltnes, Marit Råbu, and Christian Moltu. “Opening up: Clients’ Inner Struggles in the Initial Phase of Therapy.” Frontiers in psychology, December 15, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7769763/. Accessed November 11, 2023.

  18. Joseph, Stephen. “How Humanistic Is Positive Psychology? Lessons in Positive Psychology from Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Approach-It’s the Social Environment That Must Change.” Frontiers, July 5, 2021. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.709789. Accessed November 15, 2023.

  19. Webmaster, Counseling. “Creative and Novel Approaches to Empathy.” Counseling Today, July 25, 2022. https://ct.counseling.org/2017/02/creative-novel-approaches-empathy/. Accessed November 15, 2023.

You might also like

Back to Blog
Learn More
Sohee Jun

Lifting Up the Next Generation of Female Leaders

“I'm of most value and in service when I use my superpowers of understanding the challenges that women face in the workplace.” Dr...

Learn More
therapist talking to a couple

What is an LMFT? (Licensed Marriage Family Therapist)

Licensed Marriage Family Therapists (LMFTs) offer expert guidance to individuals, couples, and families experiencing complex...

Learn More
therapist meeting with family

How to Build Rapport With Clients in Therapy

Building rapport is paramount in many professional associations, but it takes on an elevated level of importance in therapist...

Request Information

  • 1
    Current Select Interests
  • 2
    Provide Information