Silence in Professional Coaching
The most underdevelopped coaching technique is also the most central: Silence

The central function of silence in minimalist coaching

Silence in executive or life coaching is generally quite superficially considered as the simple capacity to keep quiet in order to offer clients the space to express their personal dialogue, explore their deeper motivations and formulate their ambitions.  This is true, but quite limited, when defining the central role silence can play in a truly professional coaching process.  Indeed, coaching silence is actually much more than just occasionally holding back and shutting up to give the client a little more space.

  • True, many coaches come from an expertise or consulting background and are trained to think for the client and search for performing options and answers.  When they do not have a ready solution, these will often fill the void by asking their clients for more detailed information.  This analytical approach is very helpful in consulting and may lead to achieving quick results, but it often gets in the way of establishing a truly open coaching space for the client to do the exploring. 
  • Other coaches who originate from a more humanist or psychological frame of reference will often rapidly focus questions and observations on postural, behavioral, relational and emotional dimensions pertaining to the client's way of being and relating.  Even if this approach may also be effective albeit for different reasons, the coach's active role in the coaching process often allows for less space for clients to explore on their own, in their own direction, and at their own pace.

In order to truly explore the power of silence in coaching, the first need is for all coaches to be more than externally silent.  They need to develop an internal silence, quieting their inner voices that may be second-guessing client direction, thinking of options or solutions, feeling too sympathetic, projecting themselves in the client issue, judging client capacities, jumping to conclusions, getting impatient, getting emotional, feeling the urge to help or support, etc. 

Professional coach silence includes espousing an open, transparent, welcoming inner space that can allow for undivided attention to client expression and meandering.  In many cases, offering a true inner silence while accompanying client thinking and monologues is completely counter-instinctive and counter-cultural.  Offering profound inner and outer silence is not what most people have been trained to do, or raised to be.

A metaphor can be used here to illustrate the true role of coaching silence.  In the course of a coaching relationship and process, coach silence is the act of creating an empty, uncluttered, open space, quite similar to a vacuum or void.  One should picture the vacuum in a water pump or in a vacuum cleaner.  A vacuum creates an aspirational suction force.  It results in a strong pull that invites clients to search deeper within themselves.  The stronger the vacuum in the coaching relationship, the stronger the pull, the more the client will search deeply inside.

Consequently, coaching silence is not about just occasionally shutting up to provide clients with a few seconds of internal inquiry.  Coaching silence is about creating a continuous aspiration process throughout coaching sequences, sessions and relationships, in order to allow clients tofeel the personal responsibiiity to fill the empty space with concerns that originate from the deeper recesses of their own  souls.   Much more than an occasional skill, coach silence is a constant strategy that should be measurably present from the first to the last minute of a whole coaching relationship.

Coaching with the vacuum metaphor of coaching silence is therefore much more than an illustration of one coaching skill among many others.  The vacuum effect is the key criteria of the whole coaching relationship itself.  By creating a strong and constant empty space in the shared client environment, coaches continuously create the conditions for clients to fill the space by expressing their innermost concerns, motivations, doubts and ambitions.  In effect, when clients are intensely working to fill the coaching space with pertinent contributions to achieve their coaching goals, The coaching process is on a roll. 

When a coach is too busy thinking or intervening, filling the coaching space, silently or not, the client will let the coach work and will wait. There will remain much less space for the client's personal work.   To succeed in creating a vacuum in the coaching context, coaches will actually need to face their own inner silence.   This may be one of the reasons why coaches often have a difficult time giving space to their clients.  They are actually afraid of the void it represents, and feel the pressure that they have to deliver, in order to make it easy on the client.

  • If silence is considered to be equal to empty space, this gives a special connotation to the definition of coaching.  Indeed the definition of coaching often stipulates that coaches offer their clients an empty space in which the latter can unfold and grow into who they truly are.  Very concretely, this space is measurable silence.  
  • If silence is considered to be equal to empty space, it is also useful to remember that in the universe, there is much more energy and mass in empty space than there is in all the stars and planes put together.  Truly, helping clients access their own inner silence is helping them access a tremendous pool of untapped energy !
Consequently, the more coaches espouse their true inner silence as a state of being within the whole coaching process, the more they invite clients to face their own inner silence and search for whatever lies deeper or beyond their kown superficial perceptions and perspectives.

As stated above, this leads professional coaches to consider silence as the key coaching process, the main coaching strategy.  TSo to resume so far, the role of the vacuum created by sustained coach silence it to invite clients to face their own silence, and then explore whatever may lie beyond it.  This  strategy focused on creating an aspirational vacuum in the coaching process or relationship is central to understanding the function of all other coaching communication techniques.  In order to be more precise, it is useful to give a few examples:

Enter your email and suscribe to our newsletter
Your email is not valid, please enter a valid email.
  • Key word Repetition. When a coach repeats a client key word, this is to help clients focus on the deeper meaning of an expression. 
If the client suddenly quiets down and thinks before attempting to verbalize the deeper meaning of the selected word, this is an indicator that the strategy has been useful to help the client search inward.  If the client quickly responds to give the coach an obvious explanation of the word, this is an indicator that the client has not undertaken an exploration process, but is more focused on giving the coach known, more superficial information.  It could therefore be construed that the key-word repetition technique just serves to stop client verbal flow in order to help them search beyond the obvious, by first facing their inner silence.  Consequently, key-word repetition should actually serve to interrupt clients in order to invite them to face their silence, and explore beyond what they know they know.
  • Asking questions. When coaches ask clients a question, this technique serves to invite clients to explore in a new direction in an original way.   Offering a change of perspective is indeed the definition of a powerful coaching question.  
If after such a question, clients are suddenly quiet and begin to face their inner space through a deep silence, the question can be considered quite good.   when, however, clients immediately answer the question with extra information, adding details they obviously already possess, then they are not exploring new internal territory.  They are just feeding the coach with facts, reinforcing their same, known frame of reference.  One could therefore also conclude that the true purpose of powerful questions is interrupt clients, in order to help them face their inner silence, in order to go beyond it.
  • Restatements.  Likewise, when coaches reformulate what their clients have just said, it could be construed as a way of inviting them to go further. The function of a good client reformulation or restatement is a way of indicating that what was expressed was clear and that it is time to move on.
Consequently, an indicator of a useful restatement is when a client stops and becomes silent, and explores inwardly as to where to take their inner dialogue from that point onwards. If the client simply looks at the coach and offers more explanations to provide the latter with more informational details, that client has not faced their silence, and is not exploring new personal territory.

To summarize, the same can be said of almost all of a coach's communication techniques, including sharing feelings, emotions and perceptions, just simply punctuating, validating, paradoxical statements, etc. All of these fundamentally serve to interrupt clients that are explaining what they already know, in order to invite them to explore what may lie beyond their inner silence, in the deeper recesses of their being. 

  • In short, all coaching communication techniques are basically interrupting tools that serve to cut short on client verbiage, in order to have them first face their inner silence, and then explore the new territory that lies beyond what they already know.

Of course when clients are truly searching inwardly and expanding into new directions, they may also occasionally stop to look at their coaches, sometimes expectantly. This is an excellent opportunity to validate the client work with a short "you're doing wonderful". And then again keep expectantly silent, in order to let the client go on, without the coach jumping in to fill the space with needless noise.

On the point of eye contact, an interesting indicator for coaches consists in just observing where clients are looking when they work. 

  • When clients are strongly expressing themselves while intensely looking at their coach, this can be compared to giving a well-prepared talk to a large public. The client’s or speaker’s eyes are carefully noting the effect of their delivery on the audience, in order to adapt their speech to the public reaction.
  • When, however, clients are searching inwardly or thinking beyond what they know, either silently, or by tentatively searching for words as they express themselves, they are generally not looking at their coach but inwardly. Their eyes may be wandering around, or closed, or glazed, occasionally checking to see if the coach is present, and then wandering off again.  In such cases, the client voice is lower and often more hesitant.
So coaches need to keep their focus glued to their clients' eyes, while the client is looking everywhere else, searching inwardly, just occasionally checking to see if their coach is there for them.

Consequently, there are a few indicators that can allow coaches or other external observers to measure the depth of a coaching process.  When clients are freely speaking to just share what they already know, filling all the space and possibly looking at their coach, waiting for a response, there is a good chance that they are just reviewing known territory.  Listening coaches will then need to serve them an interrupting comment, restatement or question.  They could just state that what their client is expressing seems to be very clear for him or her, followed by an open question such as “So?”    Whenever the client is wandering within a self-interrupted interrupted silence, however, hesitating with the choice of words, searching around by looking everywhere else than in the coach’s eyes, then the client is really working.

How to become a coach? An article to help you consider if you are ready to make the leap.

Of course, in phone-coaching, the eye-contact indicator becomes inoperative.  But the same interactive dance can be felt through careful listening and coach silence.  Clients sometimes just fill the void, feeding the coach with large amounts of detailed information.  They are not working yet.  They are just setting the stage, getting warm.  A little budge on the part of the coach will often set them off into an un-interrupted silence.  Then clients will start sharing again, searching for new words, bending words and phrases, reaching inwards to formulate what they have never said or owned up to that point.  The coaching process is then on a roll. 

To pace this work, all the coach really needs to voice is an occasional yes, or hum-hum, or wow! or other form of appropriate punctuation, just to warmly say "I'm here for you.  You can go on".  When clients are truly meandering in their exploratory process, not much more is really necessary on the part of their coach.  Of course, a later subtle nudge to remind clients when it is time to start concluding in a practical way may be useful, when coaches keep their eye on helping clients achieve timely, concrete and measurable outcomes.  All this can be done with a very minimalist presence, providing clients with large empty spaces of  silence and a warm presence.

In keeping with the central role of silence as a means to continuously create an aspirational space for client work, it is useful to remember a fundamental definition of the profession.  Coaching is a process that allows for the emergence of new or original client motivations, projects, ambitions and solutions.  The key word here is emergence.  This means that new client perspectives will appear or surface from the bottom up, out of the coaching context, originating from the client's deeper consciousness or being.

Remembering this definition of coaching is important.  It reinforces the need for all strategies that will allow both clients and coaches to let aside and put to rest all known and tried tools, past strategies, feelings, thoughts, and techniques. This will offer a clean slate that will make space for new or innovative perspectives to simply unfold out of the present.  That is exactly what coaching silence aims to serve.

Interestingly, in today's world, one could construe that luxury is space.  Empty, uncluttered, silent space is that for which most people yearn.  Clients lack space at home, with friends and at the office.  It could likewise be perceived that coaching as a new profession mainly serves the purpose to simply and humbly offer clients the being space they desperately need and cannot find elsewhere in their lives.  This includes breathing space to think, feel, emote, soul-search, define, decide and plan.  If this is the true underlying service a coach renders: offer space for clients to unfold into what they truly are, then being truly inwardly and vocally silent is practically the only necessary and useful coaching tooL.

To conclude on this wordy plea for coaching silence, we hope we have sufficiently stressed that as a fundamental vacuum-creating strategy, it is the main, central or most pervasive coaching competency.  Both inner and external coach silence is the most important coaching tool, or skill, or technique, or posture...  One can only wonder why there is so little literature about the truly central role and function of silence.  Why is so little presented or experimented on this key subject in coaching conferences, papers, researches, etc?  There is also much too much noise in the coaching galaxy, perhaps?

To consult a much more complete text on minimalist systemic coaching
Copyright Metasysteme Coaching 2013