French composer Claude Debussy said, ‘Music is the space between the notes.’ I like to think that the transformation in coaching happens in the silence between the words.
A few years ago, I was working with the academic leader of a large pharmaceutical company. Although the coachee was based in the USA, he was originally from the Asia Pacific region, and English was not his first language. Given that I have extensive experience working across different cultures, I felt we would be a good fit to work together. However, as we started working, I quickly began to wonder whether I was the right coach for him; it was as if something was affecting our connection.
Despite his excellent English, a clear coaching agreement and focusing on objectives he had designed, I felt something was standing in the way of our communication; it appeared to be challenging for him to elaborate in any depth on his topics, and I perceived this as reluctance to engage. In seeking a solution, I turned to the three-second rule from Conversational Intelligence®, where you let the coachee finish speaking and then wait an extra three seconds longer than you usually would before saying anything. Sadly, this made no difference — something was still not working. I asked how he was feeling in the coaching process and even suggested that he might want a change of coach, which, to my surprise, he firmly declined.
As I observed and reflected on myself as a coach, I consciously decided to further increase the amount of silence in our sessions. Rather than waiting three seconds, I decided to ask a question and hold the space for as long as was necessary. In these moments of total presence, creating the space for my coachee and holding back from speaking, sometimes for as long as 30 seconds, there was a complete transformation, with my coachee becoming animated. Our interactions moved from being shallow to having substance and depth.
From then onwards, I lived the truth of the Indigenous saying, ‘Do not speak unless you can improve on silence.’ So I worked on slowing down my interactions and giving silence. This created the space for the coachee to ponder, process and produce a response
Silence, or the absence of noise, can benefit our brains in many ways. Harvard’s research on the benefits of silence has shown an increased cell density in the prefrontal cortex (emotional regulation, decision-making, problem-solving and more) and the hippocampus (learning, memory and more) and reduced cell density in the amygdala (aggression, threat perception and more). John Whitmore states, ‘Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’ By creating more space for silence, we are creating the optimum conditions to unlock our coachee’s potential.
Creating this space for silence allowed my client to explore himself and his interactions with his team and colleagues. Awareness of his need for silence and time to think allowed him to create a space more conducive to participating in the conversations around him. Through silence, he found his voice that allowed him to interact more with his team, to speak up and, where necessary, ask for more time to think. This led to a marked increase in his interaction at all levels of the company; the silence between his words really did create a significant transformation.
The learning, however, was not unilateral. There was a lot I learned about myself as a coach:
- My discomfort in a coaching session doesn’t signal that a coachee doesn’t want to work with me.
- Even when you give people silence, some coachees need more. So don’t try to fill the gap.
- Space between words allows a coachee to look inward, process thoughts and communicate effectively at a profound level.
- It is important to step back during the coaching process and observe our behaviour as a coach. Be curious about how we are getting in the way of our coachees’ growth.
- It is important to find ways to turn down the volume, not only in our coaching sessions but also in our daily lives.
Silence is a precious and powerful tool.