Normalizing Silence: Use Your Water as a Tool
My client paused after finishing their thought midway into our call. I was ready to jump in with my next question when, all of a sudden, I got a tickle in my throat. Thankfully, I had my water within arm’s reach and quickly grabbed for it to relieve the paralyzing itch. In that split second of additional silence, my client launched into an incredibly deep insight, as if that extra pause was all they needed to find their deep well of inspiration. I sat there stunned. What had just happened? Startled into a momentary dumbfounded state, and a few more seconds of silence, they spilled out even more insight.
If I had discovered something amazing here, I promptly forgot it when the session ended…until it happened again a few days later. That pesky throat tickle returned at nearly the same point in the session. As I sipped my water, the client’s natural pause was extended and out poured a deep insight. Finally, it dawned on me: Maybe there was something to think carefully about regarding the pace of the sessions. I intentionally needed to designate extra moments of silence when the conversations reached a critical point. Not a pause so long a client wonders if I am still there, but enough uninterrupted space that their quick answer can be followed by a deep-rooted answer.
I tested out this theory in my subsequent coaching sessions. Sure enough, every single time I allowed a few extra beats in the thick of the conversation by sipping my water, the extra silence launched us deeper into new territory. A tickle in my throat turned a physiological mishap into a coaching tool.
Now, I sip my water on purpose, and I give clients advance, warning so they feel empowered to take an extended time to process. This one simple trick might just be the most powerful of all my coaching tools. But why?
Coaches versus Clients
As coaches, we learn all kinds of tricks to help us lean into the silence, so we do not interrupt our client. Count to 10 in your head. Take three deep breaths. Write down the question you just asked. In contrast, often feeling discomfort with a long pause, our clients may begin to fill the air with quick answers, use fillers, or try to turn the question back to the coach. So, how can we help our clients feel more comfortable with, and use, silence? Instead of forfeiting opportunities for client growth, be creative and intentionally use what you have around you— whether it’s your water, a mug of coffee or a mute button. This plan pays off especially well with clients new to coaching who may be even more uncomfortable with silence than clients you’ve developed a deep relationship with over time. But how?
4 Steps to Normalize Silence:
- When the conversation reaches its tipping point, bring awareness to the upcoming pause and give them the freedom to be alone in their thoughts.
- Be direct and let them know it’s coming. “I’m going to sip my coffee while you think for a minute.”
- Relieve the pressure of the moment and do what you said. If in person or on video, focus your own eyes on your coffee mug for a moment and relieve the connection pressure of eye contact.
- Reaffirm the silence. If you sense their anxiety rising, re-state what you’re doing and why. “I’m going to keep enjoying my coffee. Take as long as you need to think.” Sip as long as it takes.
These tricks work in person as well as over the phone. Just because a client can’t see you physically grab your cup doesn’t mean it diminishes the power of you stating what you are doing and why.
Silence in Teams
These steps are especially helpful in a team environment where the long pause is needed for someone to work up the nerve to break the silence. Signal to the group that you are fine waiting and won’t be bailing them out. Big group? Lots of lingering silence? Go ahead and step out of the room for a predictable pause. “I’m gonna go refill my coffee, I’ll be back to hear your thoughts in two minutes.” When you wait long enough, these moments of intentional silence will generate breakthrough moments for your clients.