Staying with the silence: silence as affording care in online alcohol and other drug counselling

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As the name ‘talk therapy’ suggests, a key aim of alcohol and other drug counselling, psychotherapy and other talk therapies is to discuss issues, concerns and feelings with a health professional. Implicit here is the therapeutic value of talking through issues with a trained professional. But as with all interactions, therapeutic encounters involve silences and pauses as key aspects of the communicative process. Despite their ubiquity in the therapeutic encounter, research tends to either dismiss silences as inconsequential or as having undesirable effects, such as generating awkwardness or even disengagement from treatment. Drawing on Latour's (2002) concept of ‘affordance’ and a qualitative study of an Australian alcohol and other drug counselling service, we explore the varied functions of silences in online text-based counselling sessions. For clients, these include the role of silence in affording opportunities to engage in other everyday practices, such as socialising, caregiving or working – practices that can generate comfort and reduce distress, which in turn may support the therapeutic encounter. Similarly, for counsellors, temporal silences provide opportunities to confer with other counsellors and provide tailored care. However, protracted silences can raise concerns about the safety and wellbeing of clients who do not respond promptly or who exit encounters unexpectedly. Similarly, the sudden cessation of online care encounters (often associated with technical difficulties) can leave clients feeling frustrated and confused. In tracking these diverse affordances of silence, we draw attention to its generative potential in care encounters. We conclude by exploring the implications of our analysis for conceptions of care that underpin alcohol and other drug treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104030
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023


  • Addiction
  • Affordance
  • Alcohol and other drugs
  • Care
  • Digital health
  • Online counselling
  • Qualitative study

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