A Coaching Power Tool Created by Melanie Brown
(Retirement Preparation Coach, SWITZERLAND)
To hear, one must be silent. Ursula K. Le Guin, 2012
Silence as a power tool was inspired to me by a peer coaching experience. I was a fairly new ICA student and having my second peer coaching session. My peer client brought a very personal topic to the table: her estranged relationship with her sister. Every time she reflected after answering one of my (many) questions, I was already ready with the next one, rushing in to fill the gaps, instead of just pausing and giving her the space she needed to reflect on this sensitive and emotionally loaded topic. I wanted to ensure that all PCC markers were covered and most probably also wanted to avoid any awkward silences as I was doing my best to be present, actively listening, and gaining more coaching experience.
During the feedback discussion after the session, she rightly pointed out that she had Asian roots, and brought to my attention the fact that in most Asian cultures a discussion often has a slower pace than in other cultures.
Furthermore, during my first intermediate mentor coaching session as a coach, the ICA teaching gave me a very useful piece of feedback “You might,” she said, “want to think about using a little more silence.”
I thought carefully about what that statement meant to me. I took her comments to heart and pondered what this would mean for my peer coaching practice and how to engage in “more silence”. I was curious to learn more about the use of silence in a coaching context, understand the cultural perception, and most importantly how it could become a powerful tool rather than an awkward pause to be avoided by all means.
Silence is often associated with religion or rituals as a means of spiritual transformation or a metaphor for inner stillness. Silence is also associated with shyness or introversion when someone doesn’t want to draw attention to themselves. Silence can also be used as a way to remember a tragic incident and to remember the victims or casualties of an event in a commemorative ceremony. Silence can also be legal protection enjoyed by people undergoing police interrogation or on trial in certain countries.
The cultural aspect associated with silence was a discovery to me, and I realized that it is a key component as the average pause length in a conversation may vary by language and culture. The perception of silence in a discussion may vary tremendously. Chances are that the “pause” will be two or three seconds at most. What one culture considers to be a perplexing or awkward pause, others see as a valuable moment of reflection and a sign of respect for what the last speaker has said.
Research (1) conducted at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in Dutch and also in English found that when silence in conversation stretched to four seconds, people started to feel unsettled. In contrast, a separate study (2) found that the Japanese were happy with silences of 8.2 seconds –nearly twice as long as for Americans. In cultures such as those in Latin America or Italy, people often interrupt or talk over each other, so there is never or very rarely silence.
Besides the cultural and context, when is silence considered as awkward? A sudden absence of noise can be uncomfortable because it seems unmanaged. During an awkward silence, it could well be that one person might be panicking or that two insecure individuals are simultaneously acknowledging their security. People are not very familiar with silence and usually try to fill the gaps. Let’s now see what happens in a coaching context.
During a coaching session, there is no power game at stake. One person, the coach, is managing the session and therefore the awkwardness described above becomes a space that enables the client to process their thoughts and feelings without distraction. It can be a great coaching tool as silence helps the client to gain clarity of the difficulties they face and consider a possible way forward.
To be able to perceive silence as powerful rather than awkward, an entire shift of meaning needs to be considered.
An awkward silence sounds negative in the coaching context and has synonyms such as quiet, still, gag, muzzle, censor, stifle and speechlessness, wordlessness, dumbness, muteness, taciturnity, reticence, uncommunicativeness, unresponsiveness.
A powerful silence has synonyms for the coaching context such as quietness, quietude, still, stillness, hush, tranquility, peace, peacefulness, peace, and quiet.
1) Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, NamkjeKoudenburg, Sept 2010
2) Yappari, As I Thought: Listener Talk in Japanese Communication, Haru Yamada, Global Advances in Business and Communications Conference & Journal: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 3., 2015
Shifting the meaning and the perception of silence is a skill that can take a while to feel comfortable with and to master, often feeling that silence indicates that the coach has run out of questions. The coach may be met with silence when asking a question to the client – this could be that the client has not understood the question or they are thinking through the answer. A few things could happen then and experienced coaches will allow silence to give the client enough space to think through their response to the full. Less experienced coaches may want to dive in straight away with another question or rephrase the first.
Coaching silence goes beyond occasionally keeping quiet to provide the client with a few seconds of internal inquiry”. It’s a continual process throughout the coaching session and the coaching needs to create the right atmosphere and environment to allow for all the benefits of silence to be observed. It can enhance the coaching session.
These are the benefits of silence that I see in a coaching session. Silence can be :
- A time to make connections, to reflect and wait for words or images to occur.
- A space in which feelings can be nurtured and allowed to develop
- A space in which the client can recover from “here and now” emotions and observe what he/she feels.
- An attempt to elaborate an answer
As I continue to train and gain experience in coaching I am also continuing to learn the power of silence and to use silence as a tool. I have realized that not only is silence important but it is also interesting as well to reflect upon when the silence occurs. What preceded the silence? Is the client reflecting? Is it the right time to give more space and allow my client to think through their answer more fully, to consider what answer they have already given, or to explore further options?
My learning has taught me to reflect on what silence means to me and my relationship with silence. I try to resist the urge to jump in or interrupt. It also allows me to be better able to gauge what questions to ask next.
The key learning of using silence as a powerful tool in coaching is actually before the session begins. I now pause and apply silence before a peer coaching session. This allows me to focus and reach a level of inner calm. That pause is an eye-opener for me, and although it feels like an eternity, I now realize that it is very brief.
While it may feel counterintuitive, especially for newer coaches like me, I find that in general when I am present but not intruding, I’m more fully connected to my clients and I feel their engagement in their process grow stronger. I am grateful that I was allowed to shift my mindset from awkward silence to powerful silence in coaching, and I realize now what a gift it is to simply sit with our clients in their deepest moments.
References / Bibliography
BBC Worklife article – “The subtle power of uncomfortable silences”, 2017
“The untapped power of silence in coaching”, ebook
Koudenburg, Namkje, “Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Sept 2010
Yamada, Haru, “Listener Talk in Japanese Communication”, Global Advances in Business and Communications Conference & Journal: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 3., 2015
Prochnik, George, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, Anchor Books, 2011