Silence in Coaching – A Power For Profound Insight, Understanding and Movement

What happens for us as coaches in those moments when our client goes silent? Not just for a few seconds, but for an extended period. In those moments of intensity when we become aware that we can hear our own breathing? When there is no doubt we could hear the proverbial pin drop.

The client may be staring off into space? They may have a blank expression, their eyes focused away from the session. They may seem to be wrestling frantically with whatever it is that is in their minds. And all of this, in the context of total and utter silence.

How long does it go on for until we start feeling awkward? How much can we personally cope with before we feel the need to break in? Do we feel the need to rescue our client if we believe they are struggling? Or can we stay with the silence and just be with our client.

What is happening in those moments? What is going on for our client? What is going on for us? When I think about these moments, I like to reflect on the following questions:

  1. whose silence it is?
  2. what has caused the silence?
  3. what is happening during the silence? and
  4. what should we do as coaches during the silence?

In thinking through whose silence it is, it re-asks the fundamental questions – whose session is it? This fundamental question, for me, has a simple answer – it is the client’s session. It is for them that we are here.

And if it is their session, and I take as a fundamental value that my clients are complete, resourceful and whole, then it follows that they have ultimate accountability for what comes from the session as their outcome. And silence may well be a key part of the process by which they are to reach their outcome.

So, in my mind, the silence belongs to the client – and as such, is as important a state of being for them as any other communication mechanism they may use in the session. To break into the silence is to break into their state.

This knowledge should be one of the factors that helps us in our consideration of what we do.

The next consideration is what has caused the silence? Was it a particular question asked by the coach? Was it a line of thinking or communication coming from the client? Was it prompted by something said by the coach or client? Did a memory re-surface, an experience unearth itself, or did some recollection of a happening in the client’s life prompt it?

What was the mood of the coaching conversation running up to the period of silence? As coaches, we need to reflect on the build up to the silence. There may be clues in the build up that the coach can use to later help the client make sense of what is going on.

However, it is not for the coach to try and evaluate what might be going on. We should not be suckered into believing that we as coaches can ‘work out the solution or answer’ to what the client is considering.

What has caused the silence provides more input to us to help us in what we decide to do.

So what is happening in the silence? Is the silence a silence of reflection, or a silence of deep processing? Is it a lost silence where the client is considering which way to go, which option to choose.

Whatever is happening, it is key to understand that the silence may be the precursor to some breakthrough?

The critical fact for us to understand is that this point may be where the client goes into areas that we cannot even begin to predict. This may be the time where new information, insights, beliefs or values may suddenly surface.

This period of silence is where a coach may be at the greatest risk of asking a question to break the awkward nature of silence. We may pose a question that seems immensely sensible in light of what has previously happened. But in the light of what may now be happening (or about to happen), the question may derail, stop or confuse a profound moment or movement for the client.

We, as coaches, cannot know what is happening in the silence.

So if we cannot know what is happening, what should we do in these moments? What is our role? How can we best be of use for our clients?

If we take a wider view of what our role is as a coach in the coaching relationship, then this provides some help. For me, our prime role is as a co-traveller with the client on whatever journey they have embarked on.

We must remember, however, that it is the client’s journey, not ours. We provide some key elements to help our clients – safety, trust, challenge and support to name 4 key ones.

Our role of being with the client is hugely important. Without us they may not undertake the journey. But we are not there to define the journey or its ultimate destination. The client takes the lead on this even though we provide input to it and help them progress it.

So in the moments of silence we must clearly be with the client. In face-to-face sessions that may be through supportive body language: nodding, being actively interested, encouraging the thought process. In phone coaching it may be by making the occasional mmm or other noise that shows the client that you, as coach, are still with them. The key is that the client still knows that the coach is 100% with them on the journey.

But do we say anything? That is the judgment call.

I would absolutely recommend that we do not break the silence if it is because we feel awkward about the silence. It is not our silence to break – it is the client’s.

To me it is key that we don’t say anything that might disrupt the process of thought experienced by the client. The client may be on the point of discovering something completely new about themselves – something that neither we nor they would have been able to foresee.

It is critical that we don’t believe that we can predict it – we have not experienced life in our client’s shoes – we cannot know what may come out of their thinking. I believe that questions need to be phrased as neutrally as possible if we break into the silence – and shouldn’t presuppose any content. Phrases that may be helpful might include:

  • ‘where are you now?’,
  • ‘where are you going with this?’
  • ‘do I sense something important is happening?’,
  • ‘what is emerging from this for you?’

Leave the power with the client. Let the client make their own connections, their own interpretations, their own conclusions in the period of silence. It is their life, their story, their power.

Silence has a huge strength. It provides for reflection, for new linkages to be made, new patterns to be created, new opportunities to be born.

Silence is something that is in short supply in the 21st century. If a coaching session moves into silence, welcome it as a moment for your client to experience the opportunity for something precious and special. Don’t break the silence believing that we, as coaches, have some special knowledge or ability to help a client’s processes of thought and/or conclusion.

The power of silence is to be experienced with a deep hope that it leads to some kind of profound understanding or insight within our clients.

Welcome it as a coach and live positively with it.