The Power of Silence

Twice in two days, I have exercised the discipline to say nothing. Twice, the consequent silence has delivered an effective and creative solution to a seemingly overwhelming problem.

Two clients in my coaching practice—both kind, competent, intelligent, and diligent people—are going through a transitional trauma. They are experiencing enormous changes in their lives—changes they did not choose and over which they feel little control. These are changes which are not widely known about, which are not recognized as traumatic by their families or communities, and with which therefore my clients are largely alone.

For one client, it’s a sudden, almost violent change. For the other, it’s a gradual, slow change that has nibbled away almost imperceptibly at his soul. In neither case was the traumatic change the reason the client came to me for coaching—or at least not the declared reason. In both cases, the client raised the issue almost as a by-the-way while we were focusing on a desired career outcome.

Having first coached the client to identify and describe the desired outcome, I had asked, “What will get in the way?” The client listed some obstacles. I asked, “What else?” Then boom, smash, wallop! The enormous elephant crashed unannounced, noisily and messily, into an otherwise ordinary career coaching session. Together, each client and I decided to continue the sessions with a strong focus on holding a safe space in which my clients could further explore their current realities and their impact on who and where they want to be.

Continuing each session was tough. I found myself identifying too much with the client’s pain, so much so that I became as stuck as the client was. About halfway through, I had no conscious idea of how to move the session forward.

At challenging times, good professional training serves its purpose well. When you are under pressure, the basic principles you deliberately learned and practiced at the beginning of your career and the expertise you have built along the way quietly step in to save the day. This is known as unconscious competence.

My own challenge is that in terms of professional training and expertise, I have two potentially competing paradigms. I trained as a lawyer and practiced corporate employment law in an international law firm for 8 years. I am trained, in a crisis, to define the problem concisely and to provide clear solutions. I am trained to advise. But my function as a coach is not to provide solutions, advice, or amazingly astute and impressive answers. My function as a coach is to accompany and focus my client while she realizes and clarifies her own thinking and feeling toward a desired outcome.

Happily, in these two difficult sessions, the discipline I learned through fine coach training came into play. I told myself to breathe, to sit back. I am not here to rescue. I am not here to fix or to impress or to give the genius answer. I am here to coach.

So, I asked questions and otherwise stayed quiet. I had to keep breathing very deliberately into the silence. It was deep and long and uncomfortable. I focused on my task: to exude accepting, calm safety. The ego-driven lawyer in me was dying to have her say. I struggled to be present, wanting to formulate the magic insightful question that would prove I really did know what I was doing. But I stayed still. I breathed further into my calm. I watched. I left space for my clients to feel the pain and its impact. It was very hard to trust my gut: my lawyer’s mind was going berserk wanting to speak! Still, I stayed silent.

After a few long, long moments, through the tears, the snot, and the awful pain, each client gulped for clear air and stepped into their own “aha” moments. They each voiced their own very best solutions. If I had not worked so hard at not working hard to solve it for them, I would have sworn the outcome was magic.

In corporate life, we learn to equate silence with doing nothing, and doing nothing is rarely valued as an effective application of professional skill. Since silence is not widely valued, it’s not widely developed. Worse, it’s sometimes knocked out of those to whom it comes naturally. Throughout my career though, I’ve seen that the very best lawyers and the very best coaches have in common the ability to sit back, observe carefully, and listen intently. Whether applied to yourself or to others, the rare skill of creating and holding silence is worth developing.

In a recent HBR article, David Rock and Josh Davis explain that “aha moments that spark brilliant, unexpected solutions tend to crop up when our minds are quiet.” If neuroscience is now showing the value of silence for delivering creative solutions and for integrating the neural circuits linked to goal focus and social focus, then every organisation that seeks to collaborate and innovate should prioritize the development of this skill.  

At another level, silence is a gift, what Alain Cardon refers to as a “luxury service.”  The pace of the corporate world doesn’t typically allow time for a walk around the park, for introspection, for mind-wandering. Focused, deliberate silence permits us to stop for long enough to remember what’s important—and to prioritize and pursue that. In a world where so many are overwhelmed with everything there is to do, that silent pause is critical for real efficiency.     

On a day-to-day basis, my coaching practice doesn’t involve such extreme emotional pain as these two clients were experiencing. For the most part, I am working with the ordinary career and business issues, faced by ambitious people, teams, and organizations who want to transform performance that is good enough into performance that is excellent. In that undramatic context, silence and shutting out the external information for a while work just as well to facilitate deep thinking, clarity, and structure.

When you turn off the noise, the quiet, unassuming, obvious answer has the space to say, “Here I am”.      

Jane Babb is a coach and strategy consultant. At Deane Babb Talent, she works closely with ambitious people, teams, and organizations to deliver sustainably improved performance, team coherence, and enjoyment of the work they do. Please contact Jane at [email protected]; connect with her on LinkedIn; or follow Deane Babb Talent on Facebook.