The Sounds of Silence

by Sue Johnston, IAC-CC

"Wait till it's uncomfortable, then count to 10."

That advice, given by one of my peer coaches when we were pursuing IAC certification, still sits on my office wall to remind me that silence is part of a coaching conversation.

It was a lesson that didn't come easily and it was triggered by a disturbing setback. In their review of my coaching recordings (Certification Part Two, IAC examiners determined I had not mastered the skill then known as "Communicates Cleanly." It was disappointing that I couldn`t be certified. Worse, as someone who had spent her life as a professional communicator, missing this particular proficiency was frightening.

In the weeks and months that followed, my "failure" to communicate cleanly turned out to be a blessing. I became curious about what defines a good coaching conversation—or any effective interpersonal communication. I began examining every interaction, from coaching calls to chats with cashiers in donut shops. I discovered that being a good communicator isn't limited to outbound communication. Inbound communication is just as important, if not more so.

When I revisited the examiners' feedback, I saw that I didn't give people enough time to formulate their thoughts and put them into words. I was listening, but not for long enough. Uncomfortable with silence, I'd jump into the empty space to explain, rephrase or ask another question. Assuming that my outbound communication hadn't been clear, I wasn't recognizing that my client might need a few moments to think about what I had asked. I wasn't giving inbound communication the attention it deserves.

I wasn’t alone. Humans, though naturally inclined to communicate with each other, don't always do a good job of it. We learn through trial and error. We learn from the behaviour modelled, for better or worse, by those around us. We often operate more from habit than from thought. Conscious communication can be learned, but few people actually pursue training and, if they do, it's usually in outbound communication: writing, presenting or persuading.

As coaches, communication—both outbound and inbound—is at the heart of our work. Clients reach their potential, achieve their goals, form new habits and expand their worlds, partly through our talent as communicators. There's a reason the IAC Masteries® that guide our work include communication topics.

Masteries 5 through 8 guide us on outbound communication: "Expressing," "Clarifying," "Helping set and keep intentions" and "Inviting possibility." It doesn’t surprise me that these are listed after the masteries that deal with inbound communication. Practising Mastery 3, "Engaged Listening," asks us not only to listen to the client’s words but also to listen beyond them, to unspoken meaning and concerns. Mastery 4, "Processing in the present," reminds us to give clients time to process their thoughts.

Achieving mastery as a coach requires people who are adept outbound communicators to adopt some new practices. A core coaching skill is eliciting ideas and thoughts—inbound communication. Like detectives and talk show hosts, coaches need to get information from people. Unlike interrogations and interviews, however, our coaching conversations focus on our clients' best interests.

Our conversations inspire action. Coaches ask powerful questions that stimulate the thinking that will lead to change. We affirm, express and clarify. But the skills described in these masteries only work when we create space for reflection.

Before we can clarify, play back, paraphrase, summarize or build on what a client has said, we need to let them say it. Before they can say it, they need to think and we need to recognize the "computing" time required. That means silence.

We also need to let clients finish expressing their thoughts. As coaches, we're trained for and accustomed to conversations that are deep and challenging. Our clients don't always have that experience. As they arrive at an insight, it may not be easy to articulate. Again, that takes time. Again, that means silence.

The Roman poet Ovid wrote, "A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow." While sneering or yawning is unlikely behaviour in a coach, if we involve ourselves too much in the conversation just as a delicate new idea is emerging, we can undo the good we started when we asked the question that sparked the insight.

Pauses are critical. Brain research tells us that much of what we believe about multitasking is a myth. We can't think and talk and listen all at once. Apparently not even those of us who claim we think out loud can do it. If we're talking, we're not thinking. We need space and time to think. And we need to give space and time to others. The conversation happens in sequence: You think. You talk while I listen. I think. I talk while you listen. You think. You talk. And so on. Silence around an idea is like uncluttered white space around a picture; it makes it easier to see.

When we give another person time and silence to think, we allow ourselves to listen beyond the words. Face-to-face, we can observe the body language. Over the phone, we can listen for and become sensitive to what happens in the silence—the intake of breath, the sigh, the hum.

The pause to think is not empty time but productive silence. Much is going on. As we give our clients the gift of uninterrupted time to process while we maintain full attention, they become more at ease and confident in expressing themselves. Following our example, they may also become more engaged listeners. As we become more effective communicators, so can they.

Failing to master clean communication may have been the best thing that ever happened to me as a communicator. Because of that, I learned about engaged listening. I still have that sign to remind me to honour the inbound communication and create that productive silence. Do I need it? Maybe not. But I'm not taking any chances. This is just too important.


Sue Johnston, IAC-CC, believes real conversation is our most powerful tool. Blending experience in journalism, corporate communication and psychology, she founded It’s Understood Communication to help create better workplaces through effective communication. Sue is also the author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Me: Workplace Conversations That Work.

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