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.
I have also used silence as a manager/leaders with the team or individual team members with the intention of enabling accountability. At the beginning of my career as a line manager I struggled with being a rescuer. I am a protector and nurturer, so I tend to fall back to my nurture personality when having difficult conversations. I have had to learn to use silence to allow people to reflect on my performance feedback at that crucial moment of slight shock when hearing my experience of their delivery. I write down the feedback before hand and leave enough space after every point to help me reflect on their response verbal or non verbal. So preparation for me is important to force myself to listen and avoid rescuing
I like your ‘water technique’ and will definitely try it in my next performance feedback session. Added into my toolbox right now.
Love this insight Rebecca. When I teach mentoring and in my mentor coaching I include Powerful Listening (silence) with powerful questions. And since almost all of my coaching is by phone or zoom, I even use the mute button at times to control my natural enthusiasm in the moment. My emphasis today on Going Deeper in coaching with Emotions is where silence can lead. What is the emotional energy in a client’s real want? What do they really need to share? Or notice? Or be curious about? Silence gives that opportunity
Dr. Williams, thank you for sharing the mute trick, too! I love the idea of controlling our natural enthusiasm so it stays on our side of the microphone. I’m a naturally enthusiastic person, and definitely have learned to notice just how much that enthusiasm seeps out into the conversations. Thanks for sharing.
Great insight. Making room, giving space …..
The POWER of silence had worked wonders in many situations. The presence felt and the same shared as reflection by clients. My fellow coaches reflected too.
Thanks for sharing Rebecca.
I used the ‘water technique’ just today in a coaching session. It creates a comfortable pause, unscripted for both myself and the client to stay present.
Thank you, Rebecca for the insight!
I am so glad the water sips have been helpful to you, Erroline! That is great to hear!
Thank you Rebecca fort he insights,
The tips will be very usefull when I start my coaching bussiness again.
I love this. I learned it as ‘working silence’ in counseling classes many years ago and have used it to help countless people process tough conversations as a leader in the US Military. Now I am constantly amazed at the depth of thought my clients can access when I have the self control to keep my mouth shut a few more seconds. A bonus to this is more coffee. Thank you for an important reminder! Sometimes the most powerful question is no question at all!
That’s a great experience and thank you for putting it as a tool, simplified. I have always experienced the magic of silence and would surely try this trick more often now. Thank you for sharing this insight, Rebecca!
Great article and insights Rebecca. I have a coaching session today and intend to use your tool. A tool I have also been using is the 80/20 rule. I remind myself just before starting the session that the coach listens 80% of the time. When I feel the urge to ask the next question, I tell myself “80/20”. This has also helped me remember to give the client time to process.
Thanks again for sharing!
Rebecca’s humility is akin to a breath of fresh air ; the proverbial water dousing the itch being projected so wonderfully ; and above all linking the eye contact to being a pressure point. Thx for sharing.
Thank you , nice idea i will try it soon.
a simple powerful way of being present while not actually being there, passing the turn to the coachee’s mind to stretch, thanks for the idea
Thank you for this great strategy to provide clients more impactful moments of clarity!