An often less used tool in a coach’s toolbox is the use of Silence. Let’s take a moment to review the purpose and power of silence in coaching and indicate where it is embedded within the ICF Core Competencies.

Maintains Presence (CC5) – one of the sub-competencies states: “Creates or allows space for silence, pause or reflection”.

  • This is a more general ability, demonstrated across a coaching conversation as part of the coach’s approach, and indicates the extent to which the coach is being comfortable in allowing space and pauses to enable the client to think and reflect.

Listens Actively (CC6) – here, one of the PCC markers (6.6) offers further guidance: “Coach allows the client to complete speaking without interrupting unless there is a stated coaching purpose to do so”.

  • This focuses on whether the coach is jumping in quickly with a thought or question; either very soon after the client stops speaking or even before they have stopped speaking, both of which could indicate full attention not being given.

Evokes Awareness (CC7) – another PCC marker (7.8) gives another example: “Coach allows the client to do most of the talking”.

  • This is aimed at encouraging full client expression (see also CC4) and enabling the client to do their own work. Silence is an important enabler for the client to continue and go deeper in their process.

Another couple of sub competencies, again from Maintains Presence (CC5), where silence may be helpful are that the coach “Is comfortable in a space of not knowing and demonstrates curiosity during the coaching process”.

  • By remaining silent it may mean that the coach trusts that the client knows there is more and is curious to hear what more the client has to share.

Already we see that the use of silence in coaching is closely related to our ability to be and maintain coaching presence. This is an area that we have explored in a couple of previous blogs (How Present are You? Parts 1 and 2)

Now let’s explore this further…

Why is silence and being silent so important?

Silence allows the client to fully process their thinking uninterrupted. Simple interruptions by the coach saying ‘ok’, ‘right’, ‘hmm’, too often can have the impact of breaking someone’s train of thought. It’s a bit like having a bad connection on a phone line, where every so often there is a sound, which means another sound/word might be missed. That can be true for the speaker as well as the listener. We are often taught that the skill of active listening means using sounds to indicate we are listening. However simply by being with the client, being present and looking towards the client can provide that indication. In addition, how we use what we have heard will also give the client the understanding that they are being listened to and heard.

Interestingly, the word ‘silent’ is an anagram of ‘listen’. If we are silent, it means we can really listen and hear what is being said or not being said and can then respond more effectively with our clients. The silence we need to use as a coach also means being silent or being quiet in our own minds. If our mind is active, we can potentially miss things the client is saying. Often, thoughts, assumptions and even questions can start coming into our heads as we listen to a client, and this may mean that we miss something crucial. If we formulate a question before the client has finished, it may not be the best question to ask once they have stopped speaking. This can be observed when a coach asks a question the moment the client stops talking, indicating that perhaps it was a ‘queued’ questions rather than what needs to be said now. If a coach remains open to not knowing what to ask until the client has stopped speaking and trust that the right question will come through giving themselves (and their client) time to think and reflect on what has been said, they may then find that the best question, comment, or observation to offer surfaces and comes to them.

Why is silence such a powerful question?

Michael Grinder, one of the world’s leading experts on non-verbal intelligence and communication, offers that silence is the most powerful question one could ask. Clearly, it depends on what the conversation is and how it’s going. However, if a client is coming up with new thoughts or ideas or even just processing their thinking, rather than a coach offering something verbal, they might offer silence. As human beings, we are conditioned to ‘break silence’. What we are allowing therefore is for the client to break their own silence, and often they will come up with a completely new thought or even the question they need to ask themselves. As coaches, we thereby allow and enable our clients to work it out for themselves.

When and how do we break the silence?

What we, as coaches, must consider also is if, when, and how to break the silence. What will tell us when that is? The answer is really ‘it depends’! What it does depend upon will include how well you have developed rapport with your client; how well have you created an environment that is trusting and safe; and how present you are with your client. Once again, this may require that you have quietened your own thinking, removed any worries about ‘doing the right thing’, and simply noticed what is going on with your client. Your other senses (coming from your eyes, heart, gut, body) will help you to sense when to say something. Watch your client’s body language and what their eyes, body or energy might be doing as that will tell you if they are still thinking or if it’s times to break the silence with a verbal intervention.

If and when you do break the silence, and if it has been an especially powerful moment, you might inquire what the client’s thoughts were, offering simple curiosity before moving on.

What is difficult about silence?

When training coaches, and especially when exploring the use of silence as a coaching tool, we ask people to be silent for a period of time – whether it is for one minute, five minutes, 10 minutes or even longer. Many new coaches are shocked and uncomfortable with this exercise. An initial reaction is often: “I can’t”. Other reactions can include:

  • How will I add value if I just remain silent?
  • It makes me uncomfortable to just be in silence.
  • The client is looking to me to ask questions to allow them to have answers.
  • It is rude.

There are some interesting observations when looking at Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think’ that relate to the ability to be silent. She says that the heart of providing people with a ‘Thinking Environment’ is about the attention one gives someone whilst they are doing their thinking.  A client of Kline’s summed up the importance of this level of attention as: ‘The quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of the other persons thinking’. In reflecting upon the use of silence in coaching, the quality of the silence, and the space that silence provides, may well determine the quality of the new thinking and new awareness that our clients will gain. By being silent, we are giving the other person our ‘attention’.

In conclusion, let’s end with a reflective question…

How are you in staying silent and creating more silence in your coaching conversations?

I invite you, no matter how you answer, to do more.

Hilary Oliver, MCC

Hilary Oliver is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an International Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF Chapter and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.

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