How to Use Silence in Coaching
by Lucia Baldelli
Not everyone is comfortable with silence. Some feel the urge to break it. Others do not make pauses during a conversation and jump in before the other person has finished speaking. Silence can be a very powerful tool in coaching because it is during silence that real work and transformation happens. In this article I will unpack the different ways to use silence during coaching sessions and how to bring more silence in your conversations.
The Role of Silence in Coaching
Neil Cattleman, orchestra director, in a TEDx talk shared that he has conducted for years before he realised the power of silence. “Every piece of music I conduct begins from silence and ends into silence”, he said. There would be no music without silence because we need rests between notes to create a melody.
Any conversation is about listening to someone else’s melody and that requires pauses. If a conversation is rushed, there is no time to even think. If we jump in to say something, we interrupt the other person’s train of thought. Imagine two people having an argument: one talks over the other, they build counter arguments as the other person speaks and there is very little time for thinking and reflection. Probably not a very insightful conversation because none of them are listening deeply.
People often feel the urge to break silence, particularly if they are used to giving answers. It takes courage to give ourselves permission to stay silent and trust that the other person will come up with an answer. Nancy Kline says that during the contracting phase with a new client she would share that “if we allow the conditions for you to do your own thinking, you will think of things you have not thought of before and they will be better than mine. And you will therefore be paying mostly for my attention.” If we do a lot of talking, we let them believe that value will come from what we know.
If you are facilitating a meeting try to ask a question and pause a few times. Probably the same one or two people will jump in as they feel more uncomfortable with it. Silence can feel awkward… “maybe the client did not understand”, “maybe they don’t have an answer”, “maybe I did not ask the right question”. All these thoughts pop up in our mind as we wait for an answer.
Coaching needs pauses and space. Clients need to feel understood. They need space for thinking, reflection, and introspection. Time to go deep and search for answers and meaning. Time to reach a place of new awareness. Pauses for real work to happen.
In the Updated ICF Core Competencies, silence is mentioned twice:
- in competency 5 Maintains Presence: the Coach “creates or allows space for silence, pause or reflection” and
- In the definition of competency 7 Evokes Awareness: the Coach “facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy”.
Some time ago I had a client who was a very deep thinker. Our conversations were very slow and I really felt she needed that. Lots of pauses, looking away, getting lost in her thoughts. At the end of one of our conversations I asked her how it was for her. “Wow, that was such hard work!”, she said, “you asked me one question after the other…” I was amazed by how our perception of the pace of the conversation was different! I was waiting when she was silent, but she was busy thinking!!!
Also coaches need space to acknowledge what is being said, filter relevant information, and elaborate the next question. If we need to enable someone else’s self discovery, we need to listen. And this can only happen if we are silent inside and outside.
How to Use Silence in Coaching as a Tool
How do we know if we are using silence skilfully?
Well, if silence serves our client then we are for sure! If they are immersed in their own thoughts, they do not pay attention to us, sometimes do not even keep eye contact with us… they are somewhere else! If this is the case, we have to stay silent both verbally and non verbally! We do not have to signal that we are ready to jump in. The best thing we can do is to hold that space and observe.
On the other hand if silence is for ourselves we need to be careful. It is ok to give ourself permission to slow down and stay with what is happening but too much silence can also be awkward. Unskillful silence is:
- When I am taking a long break to think of the next question
- When I am hesitating to share an observation and that is taking some time
- When I am stuck with the client and I am panicking because I don’t know what to do.
In the next few paragraphs, I will unpack a few different ways to use silence in coaching to make it a powerful and transformative tool. Introducing these ideas gradually in your day to day conversations is a great way to familiarise with silence more.
Remain Silent After Asking a Question
Silence is welcome and appropriate in any conversation after we ask a question, even if the client is hesitating in answering it. Silence is necessary to ponder, formulate and articulate what they want to say. And even when they have stopped talking, we can give them a moment to sit with what has just emerged or to allow them to add something else. There is no rush!
This kind of silence allows clients to fully express themselves, feel heard and understood. Allowing enough space enables forward thinking.
Curious to get more coaching tips and insights?
Don’t Fill the Silence to Be More Comfortable
Being ok with silence is the number one rule! There is no need to break the pause because it challenges them to find their own answers. Coaching is about them, not us. So we need to demonstrate that they need to do the work and allow time and space for it.
If they do not understand the question, they will ask to clarify what we mean. There is no reason to explain or rephrase the question. If we asked the wrong question, amen.
It is also important to allow pauses for ourselves: to collect our thoughts, reflect on the essence of what we are hearing and make time to think of our next question. I often use pauses to connect to my body and notice on what is happening to me as I hear the client’s story. I might use that information and share it with the client if relevant.
Observe Body Language
While you are listening to a client, try to be curious about what is happening to them as they share their story. Focus on the words that seem heavier than others, on the underlying beliefs, on the emotions that show up and on what is being communicated non verbally with their body, facial expressions, hand gestures and energy.
For example, some clients might start moving in a different way when new information emerges. Some others might change the tone of their voice and the pace of their speech.
Use Silence to Show Empathy and Acknowledgement
Our pauses and moments of silence are useful to show the client that we are listening and we really get it! They will feel understood and consequently we will reach a deeper level of connection and trust.
Encourage the Client to Embrace the Silence
Silence can also be a great exercise to let the client work with their imagination, analyse their struggle and think thoughtfully to start solving their issues or examining their actions and identifying their own solutions, which is something that takes time.
It is undoubtedly not an easy process but it can generate great insights and move the client towards action. After all, our work is about facilitating their self discovery, not giving answers.
Do not interrupt silence with ‘ok’ or with your body language
As I shared in one of my coaching video tips, small words like ‘yes’ and ‘ok’ interrupt the client’s thinking. Saying them is like putting a full stop to their train of thought, especially when they come in response to something that brings forth deep emotions or meaning for the client.
Leaning forward towards the camera if we are in a virtual session is also a way to say “we have to say something important” and break silence, even without speaking.
Learn to embrace silence in your life
How many times do you feel the need of a quiet place vs fill in your head space with music, tv, or other sounds? Before we allow silence in our conversations we have to learn to be ok with it and that requires practice, even outside of coaching. Actively practising silence in your own life is a great start!
Silence is indeed a key ingredient to having transformational conversations and helping your client achieve their coaching goals. When we’re silent we slow down the pace of our conversation and allow our client to take the time they need to explore their thoughts, feelings and experience. We allow them to connect with themselves.
Before we learn to bring silence more in our coaching though, we need to be aware our relationship with silence and learn to manage it. Silence is not ‘nothingness’. It is the absence of noise. It is where transformation happens.
If you want to learn more about coaching, we invite you to join our next transformational learning journey!
- 6 ways to use silence in coaching, by Talyaa Vardar MCC
- Silence and its role in coaching practice, by Dr A. F. Turner
- Why You Need to Embrace Silence in Your Coaching, by Sarah Evans MCC
- Updated ICF Core Competencies
- Check In in coaching, by Lucia Baldelli
- Curiosity in coaching, by Karen Bruns
- What does partnership mean in coaching, by Lucia Baldelli
- Coaching mindset: definition and how to embody it, by Chester Jackson and Raquel Silva
- The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: Fundamental Steps for a Successful Session, by Chester Jackson
- Establishing the Coaching Agreement, by Lucia Baldelli
- Direct Communication in Coaching: An Essential Core Competency, by Karen Bruns
- Emotional Intelligence and Coaching: the importance for effective practice, by Raquel Silva
- Reflective Inquiry in Coaching, by Karen Bruns
- The 3 Levels of Listening, by Karen Bruns