Coach as Instrument: How Much Silence Should There Be?

coach as instrument coaches newsletter silence Aug 03, 2023
Learning In Action, Coach as Instrument: How Much Silence Should There Be?
“Don't talk unless you can improve the silence.” — Jorge Luis Borges

“How much silence should there be when we coach?” “Are we being silent for the sake of being silent?” “What’s the point of silence? Our clients are expecting us to do something, right?” These were questions received from students in a recent class focused on the use of silence in coaching.

Most of us coaches aren’t taught directly about silence. We learn about silence indirectly as a by-product of active listening. And we are taught about silence by its absence. Perhaps when we talk over or interrupt or ask our clients something too quickly. We don’t learn about (and little is written about) silence as a coaching intervention. 

That’s probably why, when I watch coaches coaching, I discover that most coaches don’t allow enough silence to make space for their client’s organic unfolding. They interrupt or cut short the internal processing of their client, intervening in the client’s own process.


How Can Silence Be a Coaching Intervention?

“Silence can be a powerful… tool. By using silence, you enter a ‘liminal’ space. The Latin definition of ‘liminal’ is of a threshold, a transitional place. This is a useful space for the coaching relationship. It allows an added period of reflection and understanding by either the coach or coachee that can be invaluable ….” — Andy Elson

Silence is something rarely experienced in a casual conversation. In most informal conversations, my experience is that not more than one or two seconds pass between the time one person stops talking and another starts (if that long). In fact, we rarely even have the chance to fully finish our thought before we are interrupted. So the fact that silence is so rare in our day-to-day life is part of what can make it such a powerful coaching intervention.

We can use silence in our coaching in the least a couple of ways: (1) Allowing the client to complete their own internal processing (2) Encouraging the client to reflect upon what they’ve just shared

Allowing the client to complete their internal process

When we’ve asked a client a question that encourages them to reflect upon their inner experience (i.e.their emotions, their sensations, their meaning-making), they will tend to turn their focus inward. This inward focus allows them to access their own clarity, wisdom, and resilience. They may, when allowed to complete their reflections, discover what they’ve been seeking and shift into a new way of being and/or identify a new course of action all on their own. 

Yet, I often see coaches cut short their client’s internal musings with questions. (As if to dig deeper, past the gold that’s already been struck).

When the client is internal, their eyes usually aren’t on ours. That’s the clue that they are still processing their experience and there is more to be mined (by them). They may be silent. They may be talking, as if to themselves... And when we are silent, fully present with them, and allow them the space to complete the cycle of their own internal discovery, we may find that our clients need a lot fewer questions from us to receive what they are seeking from the coaching.

I find that after my client has stopped talking, even when they are looking at me expectantly, if I pause before speaking the client usually starts talking again. And that makes sense because, in our daily conversations, we tend to share our experiences in short bursts and then pause to let the other person speak or expect to be interrupted. And when we coaches meet that pause with silence, we encourage our clients to continue sharing. 

Note: Much of what we are doing, I believe, when we can coach well, is returning the client to themselves for more inward exploration. You can see that and the use of silence here in this 20-minute coaching demonstration. This is a topic we teach in our Emergent Coaching program.  

Encouraging the client to reflect

When something generative has emerged for the client during a session, if we meet that moment with presence, with silence, and bear witness, the client is able to reflect further on what they’ve just uncovered. And this added reflection takes them deeper still into their experience.

Most of us humans make little time for reflection. And even if we make time for reflection in the form of journaling or perhaps meditating, our organic reflection may not take us into those shadow places that can be just out of reach. Coaching can be a space for deep, meaningful reflection when we allow for it. 

"All profound things are preceded and attended by Silence" — Herman Melville

What Can Make Being Silent So Difficult?

What I’ve learned from almost a decade of working with coaches to discover their own and their clients’ hidden patterns is that what can make silence so difficult is that we are triggered by it. And we are each triggered in our own way, based upon our own unique patterns. 

  • Coaches with what we call a “wants orientation”, will tend to feel a need to “do” something, say something, ask something. Something to move things along, something to demonstrate their value, something to try to make themselves and the client feel better. (Even though silence would yield greater value for the client).
  • Coaches with a lot of compassion and porous boundaries will tend to want to rescue their client from any discomfort created by silence. (Even though that discomfort might be generative for them). 
  • Coaches with low access to their own distressing emotions may jump in quickly to “silverline” or “brightside” their client’s distress. (Even though that distress may be generative for them). 

Silence will trigger us coaches in alignment with our own unique patterns of thinking, feeling, and wanting that arise in times of stress. (This is what the WE-Q Profile and our WE-Q Certification training help us see.)


What Leads Us To Question The Right Amount of Silence?

When we question silence, how much, if/when to talk, it’s likely because we are not fully present with the client, ourselves, and the energetic field between us. (Which is another way of saying we are triggered, as mentioned above). 

When we are fully and energetically present with what’s emerging for the client, we can sense what’s wanting to be birthed and can tune into how silence can play a role in mid-wifing it into being. (This is the core of Emergent Coaching).

Plus, anecdotal evidence has shown that the more experience a coach has coaching, the more silence they use in their sessions. Might be something to that!


Where to Start?

If you want to give silence a try, in your next coaching session, pause for at least 3 full seconds after the client has finished talking and before you start. See what happens. What happens for your client? What happens for you? 

If you are feeling uncomfortable with silence, consider turning inward to reflect upon what that discomfort is about for you. You might uncover a pattern that when examined, would allow you to be more present for your client, yourself, and the field.