In This Post
Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can say is nothing. This is particularly relevant when considering coaching. In my post Essential Coaching Skills – Focused Listening I briefly discussed the benefits of silence. In this post I will dive deeper into the power of silence, how it can be an essential coaching skill and how you can develop this fundamental skill.
How does silence make you feel?
In a coaching lesson the importance of silence was discussed. To demonstrate the awkwardness of silence our tutor asked us to sit in silence and after a short period asked us to estimate the length of time that had passed. As you can probably guess most people perceived the length of time to be longer than it actually was. This is an important point to emphasise and it got me thinking about how I feel about silence and how I respond when I perceive there to be a long period of silence. When reflecting I realised that silence makes me uncomfortable and I interpret the silence as me not being understood. This leads to me filling the silence by repeating or rephrasing the question or worse still asking a leading question. One example is as simple as ‘how did you find your test’, after a five-second period of silence you may be tempted to rephrase this with a more leading question like ‘did you find the test difficult?’ Here there is a subtle but significant difference. In the second question you are leading the person to think about what they found difficult. By not giving silence the respect it needs the question has changed and interrupted the person’s opportunity to think more deeply about the original question. When I reflect upon silence I can appreciate how challenging it is to master as a skill.
Silence is the hardest technique to learn. It’s against our instincts. We want to fill in the blanks – Katie Donovan
Silence a powerful coaching skill
Covey (2019) in The HeART of laser-focused coaching quotes Roy T. Bennett “A smart person knows how to talk. A wise person knows when to be silent”. This is a useful statement to consider and highlights that silence is an attribute of a wise person and a masterful coach. What does this quote say to you?
Silence could be described as one of the most important coaching skills and one that is used the least effectively (Covey, 2019). However, as with all coaching skills it needs to be used with the correct balance. Starr (2017) explains that the overuse of silence may have the opposite effect intended. Overuse of silence may make the other person uncomfortable and tense. This means it is important to recognise when silence is appropriate and when the person is signalling for you to talk. Observing the person’s body language will assist you to judge whether silence is appropriate. Do they look uncomfortable through their facial gestures or the way they are sitting?
Silence is a powerful and underused tool in your coaching skills toolbox. It demonstrates calmness from you and assists in relaxing the other person. It enables them to reflect on what they have said and think more deeply about what they were saying (Starr, 2017). Jobs (2016) recommends that the coach should talk for no more than 30 percent of the discussion. This gives the other person an opportunity to talk, hear their own thoughts and feelings and think deeply. It is key to note that it takes time for a person to reflect on their deep thoughts. Silence can provide the person with an opportunity to reflect deeply uninterrupted.
|A moment to reflect: Think about your conversations. How much time do you spend talking and how much time do you spend listening?|
When silence is golden
There are two key points where silence is powerful in a coaching discussion. The first point is when you have asked a question. If the person is not quick to respond do not be quick to jump in and repeat or rephrase the question. This will interrupt the person’s processing and thinking time. Some people may need more time than others to process a question and articulate an answer. These people should not be denied the opportunity to think deeply.
The second point where this coaching skill can be utilised is when you think the other person has finished answering the question. Too often we perceive that the person has finished talking when they may have more to say. They may be processing what they have said and heard, they may be thinking more deeply and articulating more details to their response (Jobs, 2016). We can be quick to jump in and interrupt the person. If you ask another question or make a comment too soon you risk interrupting the person’s thinking. This is a coaching skill that requires practice as you do not want to make the person uncomfortable with inappropriate silences.
The more I have read about silence the more I appreciate how powerful and important this is both to the effectiveness of a coach and in general conversation. With this in mind, silence is a skill I know I need to develop and gain more self-awareness in. It is a skill you can practice in general conversation with a friend or family member. Jobs (2016) recommends a conversation the person is comfortable with and at an appropriate time introduce silence. You should then reflect on the silence.
- How did you feel when using silence?
- How did silence impact the conversation?
- What did you learn from using silence?
I will consciously consider silence during meetings at work. I know that I am eager to talk and a second feels like a minute. Through knowing this I can develop this coaching skill further. I can reflect on my use of silence during conversations and if I notice I am going to talk too soon I can refocus.
|Tip: Gibbs reflective model is a useful and structured model of reflection when reflecting upon silence or any other area. I find this model really useful when reflecting as it structures my thoughts, encourages me to deeply consider my feelings, cements learning and encourages me to further research areas I want to develop.|
Failure to use silence appropriately could be described as a barrier to coaching. Therefore, it makes the above practice exercise important. You need to be self-aware regarding silence. When you are self-aware you can be conscious about your use of silence and refocus your behaviour to a more effective behaviour like silence. A further benefit I have found from silence is it allows me to really listen to the person. It stops me listening to talk and encourages me to listen to understand. Listening is another fundamental coaching skill that demonstrates how one coaching skill can benefit another.
- Silence is a coaching skill that is often under utilised.
- Silence is an important coaching skill that encourages deeper thinking.
- However if it is overused it may be counterproductive and make the person uncomfortable.
- Silence can relax the person and put them at ease.
- Self-awareness is required to understand your ability to use silence appropriately.
- It is important to practise your use of silence to ensure this coaching skill is used effectively.
The Book Club
In this post I have shared three books that have helped me to better understand the power of silence, why it is an important coaching skill and how you can practise silence to ensure it is used effectively. These books are all available for free with an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.