Practicing silence in coaching and leadership

The aurora borealis lights up a night time sky over a forest and a brightly lit house.

For coaches and leaders, comfort with silence is essential. 

Silence lets us slow down. When we slow down all kinds of good things happen. We get out of our reaction thinking and into our deep thinking. We can be more creative. We can listen more deeply to ourselves and to other people.

But for many of us, silence is difficult. 1

At EITC we believe in the WAIT acronym: Why Am I Talking? But sometimes when we try not to do something we can be unclear about what to do instead. Not talking is easy when someone else is talking. But not talking, when someone else is also not talking, can be more difficult. 2

Listening to silence

Silence in regular human conversation is rare. Silence in groups and meetings is often uncomfortable.

But here’s the thing: silence is important. Silence is powerful.

And in coaching, silence tells our clients that we trust them and they don’t need to be rescued. Our impulse to talk can sometimes come from the discomfort of witnessing someone’s uncertainty. Uncertainty and pain are normal human experiences. When we are spacious in our coaching, our clients can take the time they need to follow their thoughts, explore their sensations, and be present with themselves.

It’s so tempting to jump in with a brilliant solution. Our brains might be screaming with answers and prompts. Or annoyance and impatience. Or even boredom. 

As coaches, we need to manage all that. And while jumping in might not be what’s called for, tuning out is equally unhelpful. We have to be ready to provide support, ask a relevant question, or offer a new direction if the client asks.

Coaching helps us be better leaders

In leadership roles, whether with individuals or groups, cultivating silence cultivates a coach approach. Coaching is one of four dimensions of leadership in the emotional intelligence leadership model we use. All four dimensions are critical to successful leadership:

  • Authenticity,
  • Coaching,
  • Innovation, and
  • Insight.

Putting it into practice

To cultivate productive silences, here are a few things to try:

  1. If you tend to be on the more talkative side, use the WAIT method in meetings and conversations. Ask yourself Why Am I Talking? to check in about whether this would be a good moment to practice listening. 
  2. At the beginning of a meeting, try inviting everyone to wait a beat or two (or three!) before talking. This is can be an invigorating process.
  3. Start a meeting with one minute of reflective writing to give people a chance to gather their thoughts. We’re more likely to hear from the quiet people if we do this. Some people might feel impatient to get talking, but that’s okay.
  4. In heated conversations where there is a lot of cross talk, try doing a round so that everyone gets a chance to speak uninterrupted. This slows down the process, but might need time limits if there are some long talkers. A round is also a nice way to close a meeting.
  5. A speaker’s list can reduce the urgency that some people might feel about being heard, or getting their turn, and can reduce the number of interruptions.
  6. Sometimes when we’re working on building a new skill, like cultivating productive silence, it can be helpful to have an accountability partner (or coach) to support our learning, to talk about challenges and to help us stay motivated.
  7. Experiment with being silent in moments. Try to notice what happens when you’re silent. What happens for you, in you? What new possibilities open up for yourself and others? Who is thriving and benefiting from a bit of quiet?

Letting silence grow

Letting silence grow productively is an everyday practice. In a culture where we are surrounded by sounds and speech, silence is rare and precious.

  1. Maybe because we associate it with sullen teenagers? Maybe because silence sometimes feels like disconnection? Silence can be many things.
  2. Those of us who tend to be comfortable talking a lot in a group setting can often benefit from the WAIT intervention. Others might be working on their assertiveness and being heard in groups, they may not need WAIT quite as much.

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