One of the biggest challenges I faced when I was first introduced to coaching was trying to deal with keeping silent when someone was sitting in front of me asking for my help. I, like most people, was brought up with the understanding that if someone came to talk or ask for help, it meant that they wanted me to hear their problem and then expected to receive my advice or answer in much the same way that I might have given accounting or business advice – they didn’t have information, so I gave them what they were lacking!
As a result, this ‘keeping my mouth shut and just listening’ was both alien in concept and difficult to apply because it required both a conceptual shift from the old ‘someone asks for help so I give them advice’ way of operating AND the development of a new habit of listening and ‘shutting up’. I needed to allow the other person the space to expunge the plethora of thoughts and stories that they had created and which were whizzing around their heads until they arrived at the ‘aha’ moment for themselves. This shift was not easy for me.
I didn’t ‘get it’!
You see, in the early days when I didn’t ‘get it’, I wondered why, after some quite long and productive and interactive sessions, clients kept coming back without having really taken any action on their issue. I thought I had done a good job because I had given ‘value for money’ because it seemed that ‘value should be in the form of advice and information’ rather than just holding the space to allow them to think.
It wasn’t until I saw one of my colleagues give a demonstration on the power of silence in coaching that I ‘got it’. And it wasn’t a case of ‘silence for the sake of silence’ either, it was more about giving undivided attention, listening, being curious with questions and being engaged. It was so powerful and the impact on the client was visibly evident. Nancy Kline calls it creating a ‘thinking environment’ in her book ‘Time to Think’.
The impact of keeping your mouth shut
The thing that I realised however, in that moment and in subsequent sessions with clients, was that this wasn’t just about coaching. Actually, what I was seeing was a true expression of genuine interest, caring and even love on the part of one individual to another, and if you substitute the word coach and replace it with parent, employer, partner, line manager, teacher, therapist, doctor, colleague, friend and any other role in which we find ourselves engaged with other people on a one-to-one basis, you can see the extent to which this process is potentially so valuable and transformative.
Everyone has the opportunity to create these ‘thinking environments’ and everyone can be transformative. All it takes is keeping your mouth shut, giving your maximum attention and listening, and occasionally, if the person becomes stuck, a simple question to ask what assumption they are making and if it is true, is all that is required to nudge them along. There is nothing more to do, to give, to say because it is not about you – it is about the person in front of you.
So I urge you to try it. I assure you that it is not easy. I still find it challenging to break the ‘bad habits’ even though conceptually, I get it. But it is worth persevering, you WILL make such a difference in the lives of friends, colleagues, staff, children, clients and all of the people that you care about.