Dylan Emerick-Brown's picture Submitted by Dylan Emerick-Brown April 13, 2024 - 4:18pm

Profile of a woman with the cosmos as a brain,Element of the image provided by NASA

The Sound of Silence in Coaching

Silence is often seen as the absence of sound. In coaching, it’s often viewed as the absence of speaking by either the coach or the coachee. And, as such, the role of silence in coaching has been unfortunately underutilized. The challenge in coaching, as acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton said, is to understand that “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” (Hempton, as cited in Reynolds, 2024, p. 93).

Is Silence Silent?

Before moving forward, consider what silence – particularly in the context of coaching – is. Is there such a thing as silence? The answer is emphatically “no.” From the outside looking in, it may appear that both parties are simply sitting in the quiet, not a sound to be heard. But that isn’t what’s actually happening. Sound doesn’t occur in the ears; it occurs in the brain. 

Will Storr, in his book The Science of Storytelling (2020), writes, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain” (p. 25). So, regardless of the absence of external stimuli, silence is more a state of mind than an observable phenomenon. 

With that said, think about what is really happening in the coachee’s mind when the coach asks a question then pauses for “silence.” From the outside, it seems that nothing is happening. However, in the coachee’s mind he or she is actively thinking and likely having an internal conversation with him or herself. In their mind, there is no silence. In fact, it’s often noisy and messy, fraught with new ideas, unfamiliar questions, and unexpressed emotions all of which are essential for a transformative coaching session. In a sense, silence is not the absence of noise; it’s the reorientating of it.

Silence Doesn’t Detract, It Gives

Silence is also a gift. It allows the coachee to detach for a moment from the distractions of digital screens, pinging notifications, needy colleagues, and unintentional unconscious thought processes. If presented properly by the coach, silence offers the coachee the opportunity to get reacquainted with someone they’ve likely lost touch with for a long time: him or herself. Silence is not the absence of monologue; it’s the presence of the long-neglected dialogue the coachee has been avoiding with him or herself. 

Remember first that context is key. A coach should not begin a session with utter silence. That would be strange and directionless, to say nothing of the confusing impact on the coachee. However, by providing a context to the silence, the coach is creating the environment for the coachee to reflect in their own time. The introduction of silence should be viewed as an intentional act, not as an accidental byproduct of having nothing to say.

When a forest catches fire, it can be a destructive conflagration that leaves charred wood, cinder, and ash in its wake. But like silence, the awesome power of fire doesn’t create the absence of something, but rather the presence of something else. Silence without context is like a wildfire, out of control, scary, unpredictable, and potentially destructive. However, if the coach provides the appropriate context, silence can function much like a controlled burn. A controlled burn intentionally eliminates much of the brush, weeds, shrubs, and trees that can stifle the growth of the forest. In its aftermath, sunlight can penetrate to the ground which promotes the growth of long-dormant seeds and new growth. It’s an excellent analogy for the role silence can play in coaching.

Validating the Discomfort Gives Permission to Explore

None of this, however, changes the perception that silence can be awkward or uncomfortable. This may be true for the coach as much as it is for the coachee. The feelings of unease or self-consciousness are common and valid. In coaching, as Marcia Reynolds (2024) writes, “Discomfort is evidence that a new awareness is forming” (p. 8). It is in the discomfort that our normal thought processes and patterns are disrupted and allow us to perceive them in a new way. And this opens the door to breakthroughs and insights. The discomfort of silence is not likely a sign that the coaching is going in the wrong direction. In fact, it’s likely that the discomfort is signaling that the coachee has entered a state of being they’re not used to and in which unfamiliar: the realm of “I don’t know what I don’t know” – the true unknown. And with the safe and comforting presence of the coach holding that space, the coachee can freely question and explore what those feelings mean to them and where they stem from.

But what about the awkwardness of the coach in the silence? That, too, is valid. The moment coaches pretend to be all-knowing gurus or confident emotional sherpas, they begin to lose sight of the true power of coaching. If the coach feels discomfort in the silence, they should feel free to share that with the coachee if appropriate and not disrupting their silence. The expression of vulnerability reveals that the coach is present and empathetic. It validates the feelings of discomfort the coachee may be sensing. And it embodies the nature of coaching in that it is a co-created partnership. 

Conclusions About Silence

It is completely natural to think of silence as the absence of something and, in that absence, there can exist an awkwardness we would prefer to avoid because it feels stagnant and unproductive. However, there are things to remember about silence that can be transformative for both the coach and the coachee:

  • There is no silence. The coachee is having an internal conversation with him or herself, reflecting on the topic, thinking about thinking. It can be rather noisy in that active mind and only external silence can provide the environment for that internal dialogue.
  • Silence is a gift. When one considers all the 21st century’s myriad distractions shrinking our attention spans, providing instant gratification, and filling the voids, having a moment to simply pause and reflect on one’s own can be an incredibly powerful gift in its own right as the coachee is reintroduced to him or herself.
  • In the proper context, silence can be utilized like a controlled burn. Just as fire can sweep away forest clutter and darkness from an overgrown canopy, silence can provide the cleansing emotional environment for new thoughts to germinate and new perspectives to take root.
  • The discomfort of silence is a sign of progress. It’s natural to get comfortable in our habits, preferring to stay in the known. Family therapist Virginia Satir said, “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty” (Satir, as cited in Reynolds, 2024, p. 4). The presence of discomfort means that the coachee is in an unexplored space. This is where breakthroughs reside.
  • The discomfort of silence to the coach is an opportunity for connection and permission. If the moment is appropriate, the coach can share their vulnerability in the feeling of discomfort from the silence as a means of empathizing with the coachee while simultaneously holding the space for them to explore this uncharted environment.

As coaches, we should embrace the role of silence in coaching as an intentional tool with great power to facilitate the shifting of perspectives. At the very least, it can provide momentary respite from a busy world. And at the very best, it can clear away the fog of the known so the coachee can uncover insights that were always there but hidden amidst the noise. 

References

Reynolds, M. (2024). Breakthrough Coaching: Creating Lightbulb Moments in Your Coaching 
Conversations
. Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Storr, W. (2020). The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them 
Better
. Abrams Press.