Why Silence Matters in Coaching
What your clients need from you is often simpler than you might think. Oftentimes what they need most is to be seen and heard — and to be given the space to see and hear themselves speak.
As Martin Buber once wrote, “An important kind of healing occurs through meeting and ‘being met’ rather than through insight and analysis.”
This starts with your ability to stay present in silence. Unfortunately, silence is often misunderstood and misused in coaching. In this blog, you will gain some insights to help you see silence as a resource for presence not as an absence to be fixed.
Many of us feel awkward in silence and rush to fill it with our words or energy for the sake of managing our own discomfort. As such, we often rob clients of the opportunity to notice a deeper truth that is emerging or access a deeper accountability for what is theirs to do.
Being truly silent and present with clients takes practice, but once you learn to regulate yourself you’ll find that your coaching sessions become more meaningful and impactful.
Because silence is such a powerful tool for coaches, we’re going to address two of the biggest misconceptions about silence below. We’ll also discuss how you can decide when to remain silent and when to speak up during coaching sessions.
Before we get to the misconceptions, we’ll start with a note from Dr. David Drake:
A Note From David:
One of my observations in my own life is that when we think back to memorable moments with key people in our life, we may not remember all of what they said, but we seldom forget how it felt to be with them. It is the same for our clients.
When we focus on our questions and driving the conversation forward, sessions often feel like skipping a flat rock across the surface of a lake. It looks cool and may travel far if we have skipped it well, but ultimately it sinks to the bottom.
Instead, I think of coaching as the rocks that are stacked into ‘ducks’ that are placed at strategic locations to guide hikers in places where the trail may be faint. Words are not necessary. Awareness is essential. If you are hiking along and filling the silence with lots of words, they are easy to miss.
The secret is to learn how to be fully present without always having to fill the space with words.
What would you notice if you left more room for what is not yet said?
What would clients notice if they left more room for what their body is trying to tell them?
How would the working relationship deepen if you both left more room for the client to claim what is theirs to do?
How could you use silence more often to create memorable experiences for your clients?
Silence Is Presence, Not Absence
The first misconception is that silence means that something is missing. It is based in an assumption that if nothing is being said, then nothing is happening — and therefore that no progress will be made. From this anxiety, it is easy to get caught up in trying to make something happen. What if, instead, we saw silence as space for digestion, reflection, observation, imagination, and more?
As a result, we can see silence as fertile and rich. It creates the spaciousness that clients often need to get in touch with themselves, their stories and their experiences in new ways. It opens up the possibility for what attachment theorists call ‘moments of meeting’ in which coach and client can be brought into a new level of awareness and growth.
As a coach, to be able to work with silence this way starts with radical presence — one of the greatest gifts you can give your clients. The quality of your presence, often more than your words, is what creates the sense of safety that your clients need to do the work that is in front of them. It creates the space for their stories to unfold and their needs to emerge. Let the silence breathe rather than filling it up.
Silence Is More Than Not Talking
There’s an important distinction between not talking and being silent. However, silence is not what happens after you stop talking, but the very ground from which to speak. It offers the spaciousness in your work to receive and notice what is already present in the moment. It’s where old stories can be released and new stories can be born.
Silence also involves quieting your body, your breathing and your energy as necessary — in part to invite your clients to do the same. Paradoxically, the fastest way for your clients to move forward in their work with you is to stand still.
When this happens, both you and your clients start to notice more about what is happening in the field between you, in each of you, and in the issue that is being explored. The somatic and unconscious elements of their stories can more easily be noticed — the spaces between all the words where the real conversation often awaits.
How Can You Use Silence More Productively?
If you feel awkward or uncomfortable in remaining present in silence with your clients, you’re in good company. As a coach, it can feel challenging because there is often the expectation that your role is to make something happen for your clients.
But what if something is already happening and our role is to support its emergence from the silence. Think of yourself as more of a healer in presence with a process more than a hunter in pursuit of an outcome. This begins with speaking only when you can improve upon the silence (which is not nearly as often as you think).
It’s only natural that you’ll have thoughts or ideas that you feel excited to share as you listen to your clients during coaching sessions. However, you can just as easily impede the client and what they are seeking instead of helping them. Again, let the silence breathe . . . so you can get a clearer sense of what is actually being called for in the moment.
This practice of watching thoughts arise and letting them pass is similar to what may happen when we are meditating. It’s a practice of recognizing that not every idea merits an interruption of the current moment. It's a practice of trusting that the process is already underway and that we can use silence to ground that process rather than trying to skip it across the water.
Silence as a Resource
As has often been said, our work starts with letting the muddy water settle so that clarity can emerge. This only happens when we can sit with silence, inquire into the quiet that arises, and see what the moment is inviting us to notice.
It is a call to listen and inquire into the silence as the proverbial mud settles rather than filling it up. Silence is a powerful resource to help our clients deepen their awareness, their access to their truth, and their freedom to find new words and choices. Our work as practitioners is to develop ourselves so that we can BE with them in that silence.
You can experience this type of generative silence by joining the conversations happening in The Threshold Lab. The Threshold Lab offers a free Open House on the last Monday of each month.