Coaching with silence and the ineffable virtue of being listened to without interruption
Updated: May 28, 2021
When is the last time you sat in silence for a few minutes, reflecting on an important question, in the presence of another person? When is the last time you did this, knowing you would not be interrupted?
Photo: Chaz McGregor
I never truly experienced the power of “active silence” in coaching. Not until I attended a workshop led by John Gray and Kay Young from the AoEC on “Coaching with Silence” at least, at the beginning of 2021. During the first break-out session we were invited to reflect and discuss in small groups about our “interest and energy around silence, in life and in coaching”.
Seldom, have I explored this question before. However, it revealed a new awareness for me: silence is something I crave much more than I imagined.
With the current human existence in western societies often defined by more stimulation, more distraction and more “things to process” than we can cope with, stating that silence is something human being yearn for may sound obvious.
Yet, silence for some can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially for individuals operating in organisations where silence is not culturally invited, but rather is something that must be filled.
I am reminded of something Nancy Kline said – that “the quality of everything human beings do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first”. Whilst cultural unlearning is not an easy gig, if leaders experience the power of active silence in coaching perhaps they might become more comfortable with silence themselves?.. and not feel the need to fill the space in any form of dialogue, be it team meetings or 1:1 conversations?
My own experience at being listened to without interruption
I came to truly experience the power of active silence during 2020. On that occasion I was on the phone to my sister who was calling from Oman where she and her family were “stuck” due to Covid. A few minutes into the conversation, the microphone of her mobile stopped working yet we could see each other. Eva could hear me, but I could not hear her. As we hadn’t spoken in a while, she signalled with her hands that I carried on speaking and that she would be listening.
In that precise moment I got to experience the power of being listened to without interruption.
It is hard to explain the feeling I had. It was both new and liberating at the same time. I felt in control and free. I knew I could slow down my pace and take my time to think, knowing that nobody would jump into the conversation with a comment or question.
This experience really made me appreciate the power of active silence. Equally, I noticed how I can become triggered by conversations characterised by interruptions and where people speak at the same time. Growing up in Italy from the age of eight until eighteen you can imagine how I have been immersed in these communication patterns where everyone speaks at the same time, over each other and the loudest person “wins” (sometimes it’s the TV in the background).
Playing with silence in coaching
During the coaching with silence workshop, the facilitators provided us with a simple yet effective framework for trying this out with clients. Here below I share what I took away from that workshop, adding details from my own experience with a view of making it as easy as possible for you to try this out in your practice.
During the contracting phase I would mention that I see everyone as naturally resourceful, creative, and whole. In other words, coachees hold the solution to the problem they face. If I haven’t contracted upfront – i.e., at the beginning of a new coaching engagement - for “creative experiments” I may contract for this at the beginning of a new session or in the moment.
Assuming this is in service of the client, I would offer the option to hold silence as an experiment, among other possibilities that move the coachee forward. Typically, I would do this based on an intuition – i.e., that a silence space may enable something to emerge for this client. I would do this at a moment of the session where I feel the client is holding an important question.
Next, I would invite the coachee to clarify the question they hold without coaching them on the question, i.e., they come up with the question they feel is most relevant.
The duration of the experiment can vary based on how much time you have and how much time you think would be required to help the coachee form thoughts. In the workshop led by John and Kay we were invited to hold silence for "four minutes, thirty-three seconds" in acknowledgment of the notorious piece conceived in 1952 by composer John Cage. This duration felt just right.
Whilst the coachee thinks for themselves, my role as coach is to be present for them, hold the space, notice what emerges for me, and “support” the coachee, sitting tightly to see what emerges. At the end of the experiment, I would reconnect with the coachee to ask where they are in relation to the question they were holding, and what is it that they might need now and to move forward with the session.
Benefits of coaching with active silence
There are many reasons why holding active or uninterrupted silence may be of value to the coachee. Here’s a few:
It’s a gift of time for thinking for time-starved leaders. When this happens in the safe space of the coaching relationship, it can lead to new awareness and insights.
It encourages a coachee to practice going down the self-inquiry road, versus seeking answers from others. As Kay beautifully says, it “invites a coachee’s inner wisdom to reveal itself”.
It helps individuals become more comfortable with silence and not feel the need to fill the space during meetings or 1:1 conversations.
It nurtures the human mind and generates independent thinking.
Holding active silence in a coaching session can be both a frightening as well as profound experience for the coachee. At worst it will reveal unease and discomfort, leading to new insights and awareness to explore in the coaching relationship. At best, it could be liberating for both coach and coachee.
Thank you, John and Kay, for helping me see the importance of silence in coaching.
NB: Nancy Kline has researched and written extensively about what generates the finest independent thinking, if you’re interested to explore this topic further: https://www.timetothink.com/
 Active silence differs from simply using silence in coaching in the way that it’s a promise of no interruption. It’s a creative experiment lasting a few minutes and contracted for explicitly with the coachee.