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Silence really can be golden

In coach supervision I often hear the question, “What could I have done differently?” Always a valid question and usually alternative approaches can be suggested. However, it got me thinking about those times when saying and doing less has been the real gold in a session, where less has absolutely been more.


As coaches we learn very early on about active listening and how powerful and necessary it is. It is presented as an essential component and foundation stone of a coaching relationship, which it most certainly is, and it can also be the primary intervention.


Two powerful examples of this come to mind. The first was Annie, a full-time carer looking after her disabled son. She spent the session talking through her worries, her frustrations, the impact her responsibilities were having on her life, her relationships, and her imagined futures. Her life sounded tough to me, but she didn’t need my help to see any other perspectives, or to have anything reframed, or to find strategies to change her situation. She was grateful for all the support she already had and didn’t want to change anything. She just wanted to sit in a room and talk about her concerns without having to edit herself or worry about hurting anyone else’s feelings. For that hour, she could focus on herself and how she felt.


When I met Annie I was much younger and very inexperienced, but I knew how to listen. I could think of nothing useful to add to what she was saying so I said very little. As she left, I felt humbled and embarrassed that I had not contributed much. She thanked me profusely, and I assumed she was being nice, so I smiled and wished her well. She stopped at the reception desk and told them how wonderful I was, and what a difference her session had made, how she was walking out like she had had a weight lifted. I thought, if she was just being nice, she was starting to over egg it now.


Annie then went home and took time out of her very busy life to write an email to the organisation telling them what a difference that session had made to her. How she felt heard and supported and was so grateful. At this point I realised that something special had occurred for her in that session.


For one hour Annie had felt seen, heard, and supported. The session provided a calm oasis where she could be emotionally held in a life where, more often than not, she was the one holding others.


When I reflected on what had occurred, I was still humbled, but not with misgivings, rather with a valuable lesson learnt about how powerful just being there and listening can be. I have always been grateful for having this experience right at the beginning of my career. It made me truly recognise and value the power of “just” listening.


The second, more recent session was with Jasmine, who had recently experienced a miscarriage, one of many. She was hurting, angry, frustrated and desperate. Some of the things she said could have been heard as ‘outrageous’ or ‘wicked’ and there were many times I considered interventions, but I could feel her emotion and sensed that she was processing as she was speaking, so I stayed quiet.


She expressed a broad range of very complex, contradictory and harsh feelings directed towards herself and others. It was a challenging session for me as I worked on staying centred and able to hold all that was being expressed. I focussed on staying curious, not judging and not getting drawn into problem solving. By the end of the session, without any prompting from me, she addressed every question I had been holding, every, single, one.


There was no ‘problem’ here that coaching could ‘solve’. And yet it was a valuable and cathartic session for Jasmine where she had a safe space to express thoughts and feelings that she couldn’t say to family or friends. Being able to show this angry, hurt and hurtful side of herself, counterintuitively allowed her to reconnect to all her other feelings, perspectives and resources once more. As often happens in coaching sessions, I was filled with awe at the ability people have within themselves to find their own right answers.


Richard Moss said, “The greatest gift we can give another person is the quality of our attention.”  It is a rare and powerful thing to be talking to someone who is 100% present for you. Another person being there with their full attention, neurology, mirror neurones, eyes and ears directed on you. No distractions, no attempts to add another perspective, no similar stories from the other person. Just space for you to unload, unpack and express something you haven’t said in this way to another living being.


Listening can be a whole body, all senses engaged activity. It’s holding a safe, contained space for the client. A place without judgement, where the expression of someone’s inner experience can be held by another person in a caring way. This kind of listening is viscerally felt by the speaker, our system knows when someone is paying attention in this way. There is a magic to it.


Listening is of course a core coaching skill which we use all the time with all our coaching approaches, skills and tools. And, when the situation demands it, silence can indeed be golden.


(Client names have been changed.)

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