On Holding Your Tongue
Posted by Leslie Ellis, PhD on 8/22/18 - 5:22 PM

We therapists have all been guilty of this one: holding forth when we should really be letting our client have the floor. I recall many cringe-worthy moments as a nervous new therapist, going as far as talking to my clients about the theory behind what they were experiencing, convinced they would be as fascinated by this as I was. Fortunately, I was empathic enough to pick up on their blank stares and restrain myself.

I am currently in the process of doing a qualitative study on the common factors in working with dreams. This is relevant because of what I’m finding in the data around dream interpretation. In short, don’t do it! What modern dreamwork methods suggest is that even if you have a jaw-droppingly brilliant sense of what your client’s dream is about… don't, especially if you have something amazing to say, the best thing to do is keep it to yourself!

Why hold back? There are a few good reasons. First, because we may not actually be right. Dreams are multi-faceted and only the dreamer really knows what they are about. My wonderful interpretation may fit the images tidily and still not have any relationship to the client’s dream. Also, I’ve found that if my take on the dream is not a fit, my less assertive clients will do their best to see my point of view and contort their dream into the Procrustean bed I’ve made for them.

Another reason to hold back my brilliance? This is the main reason: because if I don’t, I rob the client of their own thrill of discovery, the excitement that comes when they unlock the meaning of the dream for themselves. Not only will the client’s interpretation be better-timed because the realization comes when they are clearly ready to have it, but also, the insight or experiential shifts made in the process will stick because they are the dreamer’s own and there is strong emotion attached to their discovery.

Despite what I just wrote, on occasion, if I feel I really must offer my pearls of wisdom about a dream, I have learned to do so tentatively, and back off immediately if I get that telltale blank stare. I may be right, and the timing may be wrong. Or I may be way off base. Either way, the best interpretation is the one that comes from the client. After all, I don’t want them to walk away from therapy thinking, “Wow my therapist is so smart, how can I manage without her?” Rather better is when they walk away with a sense of mastery and confidence about their own ability to read into their dreams and their life.

That said, good dreamwork like good therapy, should be highly collaborative. We all tend to have huge blind spots around the images that come in our dreams; so playful and respectful curiosity can help guide the dreamer to find their way through the complexity of their dream world. You can also use a device from the dream interview method that suggests you play really dumb and ask the dreamer to explain their dream images as if you are from another planet. The words they use for me-from-Mars often give a sense of how the image may be a metaphor for something in their life-and what they say is never predictable. If they dream about a dog and I say, “I’m from Mars, what’s a dog?” the answers could range wildly: from a dangerous beast with big teeth to my best and most loyal friend.

In the common factors research into dreamwork, of the 14 dreamwork methods I analysed, only psychoanalysis still advocates for interpretation by the dreamworker. All the rest advise strictly against it and suggest instead to encourage the dreamer to engage with their dream experientially and allow the dreamer’s sense of what the dream means to emerge. When I’ve had the self-discipline to do that, so often I have been amazed by the creativity and insight from my clients, and the unexpected places they went with their dream images, that I’m glad I held my tongue. 


File under: Musings and Reflections