It sometimes feels as though we are wired to hate silence. How many times have you been sat in silence and you or someone else has said “Well, this is awkward”, or something similar? Or you have made small talk to get rid of the silence. How many times do we ask a question and then ask the question again or rephrase it? However, silence is an amazing tool to use especially when you consider coaching.
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I have never been a fan of silence and I have always found it uncomfortable. Therefore, it has taken real effort and concentration to master this skill. However, this became significantly easier when I witnessed the impact it can have. I ask questions when coaching and then wait. If you try this you will likely be able to see a person’s thinking in action. You may notice their eye movement, and body language, and sense that they are in deep thought. When you embrace silence you notice much more about the person and you can ask more powerful questions.
If I was to name one coaching skill I’ve learned that has had the biggest impact, silence would be that skill. It’s funny, before coaching I probably thought my ability to remain silent was fine and maybe only needed tweaking slightly. This is a trap many of us probably fall into. In fact, overrating a skill is that common it even has a name; the Dunning-Kruger effect. Overrating a skill, particularly one that seems straightforward, probably isn’t that unusual. We, therefore, remain blissfully unaware and continue as we always have. This habit of continuing as we always have might include interrupting someone before they have finished, thinking about what you want to say next instead of listening, or filling silences you perceive as awkward with another question.
As some learning to coach I have found self-awareness extremely useful. It is interesting, once you start being more present in conversations you start to be more aware of barriers that led to sub-optimal conversations. As a coach, you can easily fall into the ‘rescuer trap’. Here you will ask a question and if there is a silence you perceive to be too long you may then offer a solution to your coachee. If you sense yourself falling into this trap take a second, remain silent, and observe the coachee. It is amazing when you take a step back (metaphorically) and start to observe the coachee.
On the point of eye movement, it is worth mentioning that eye movements are not random and it is worth reading more about this topic. I have learned more about this area in NLP The Essential Guide to Neuro-Linguistic Programming. This is a discussion for another post however I highly recommend reading more about NLP.
I always thought talking and listening were the main elements of communication however for communication to be effective there must be silence, too. Sounds obvious I know. In addition to silence you need to be present.
Silence into Practice
When I first started to learn about coaching I immersed myself in as much literature as I could. I became addicted to the subject and the skills involved in coaching. A lot of what I read discussed silence. Julie Starr in Brilliant Coaching was one of the first books I read that discussed silence. In this book, you will learn that silence allows someone to reflect on what they have just said and invites them to explore their thoughts further. This can provide them with an opportunity to generate actions to move forward. Starr even refers to silence as a behavior. This is noteworthy as behavior is the way you act which implies you can choose whether to be silent or not. Here are my tips to improve your silence skills.
- Remain present – this means concentrating on the conversation and not letting your mind drift. If you find yourself thinking about what you’re having for tea, or a stressful meeting you have coming up bring yourself back to the meeting.
- Reflect on the conversation – think back and objectively explore whether you remained silent after asking a question. Did you interrupt the person? Maybe they appeared to have finished talking and you started talking just as they were going to speak again.
- Minimise distractions – there are so many distractions in the modern world. Remember, our working memory can only handle 7 +/- pieces of information at once. This reduces if you are experiencing stress. Therefore, close down your emails, go somewhere quiet, and move your phone out of reaching distance. This will increase your ability to focus on the person.
- Mindset – before I go into a formal coaching session I always give myself at least 10-15 minutes to get into the right mindset. I empty my mind of previous tasks or tasks coming up. Some people find meditation helpful as this can help to clear your mind.
- Practice – practice usually makes perfect. However, that is with the caveat that you reflect and build upon previous attempts.
- Observe – it can help you to remain silent (or at least it helped me) if you observe the person’s body language. Their eye movement can give you big clues as to how much the person is exploring their thoughts. This deep thinking can be very beneficial for coachees. There have been times when I have nearly broken the silence however I have noticed the coachee’s lips moving slightly to indicate they are about to speak.
- Seek feedback – this can be crucial. You may think you use silence however asking others can help you to know for certain. Using 360 feedback is popular because it is anonymized and gives people the confidence, to be honest. If you are coaching you can ask coaches if you are using silence appropriately. In addition, you could ask friends and family. However, do so with caution. It is easy for feedback to become overheated. Therefore, only do this if you are in the mindset to receive and use feedback in a positive way.
The Book Club
Something I have done a lot since becoming a coaching apprentice is read. Therefore, I like to share some of my favorite reads on my coaching journey. You can find some great coaching books for free with an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.
Neuroscience for Coaches by Amy Brann is one of my favorite reads to date. As a coaching apprentice, it is important to understand how the mind and brain function. This book beautifully explains several neuroscience topics. If you want to learn the neuroscience of motivation, decision-making, goals, habits, trust, fairness, and more then this is the book to read. Click here to get your hands on this amazing book.
Performance Coaching by Carol Wilson is another great read. This is a great introductory read to coaching. It starts with the basics of coaching, how it differs from other professions, and coaching and neuroscience. If you want to coach organizations this book offers great insights into coaching cultures for both the internal and external coach. You can grab a copy of this coaching book here.
Personality Psychology by Jim McMartin is an interesting read. Personality is often connected to coaching. Often coaches will use a personality assessment as part of the coaching process. Therefore, as an apprentice coach, I feel it is my professional responsibility to understand personality and its relationship with coaching. You can get a copy of Personality Psychology here.