In coaching, as in all other formal and informal helping relationships, there come many times when the helper needs to not say anything. These might be times when the client is talking, or thinking, or sitting with their own feelings and inner process. (I’m using the word ‘client’ as a cover-all term for the person who isn’t the nominated helper).
Especially within the longer of these kinds of silences, the helper may wonder what they are doing to be helpful. If they are inexperienced, or in some way anxious about the quality of their helping, then doubt may arise about what value they are adding through their silence. Or they may feel that they are somehow not needed, and thus suddenly feel to be without an active role in the process.
However, on a very practical level, silence on the part of the helper means that they are getting out of the client’s way. The added value the helper brings is by giving space and permission for the client to work things out for themselves.
On a deeper level, my sense is that there is a very active role that the helper can play when the client is inwardly reflecting. The helper in these moments can support the client non-verbally. The title of this article refers to cheering quietly; and ‘cheering quietly’ has many other names too, such as upholding, supporting, witnessing, praying for, validating, rooting for, presencing, accompanying … you probably have your own words to describe what you yourself do as the helper in those moments.
What’s important, I think, is that these kinds of silences are far from passive.
In our active silences, we can hold the belief that the client has access to inner resources and strength.
We can hold an attitude of compassion for the client, if we recognise that they are struggling to shed themselves of a limiting belief or script about themselves (compassion not least because we know how hard that can be to do in our own lives!)
We can bring our hope that the silence will lead to positive ways forward in service of the client’s learning and growth.
And we can continue to know that we are still listening; we remain attuned to our perception of the client in their experience.
I was with a team recently, facilitating their awayday. As the day progressed, I said less and less as the team rediscovered for themselves how much they enjoyed having this time for themselves together. So long as they were having the conversations they needed to have, my role was to uphold them in doing so. I was ready to rejoin the conversations, and did so every now and then, to offer observations or to comment on how they were working towards the goal of the discussion. But mostly, I was cheering quietly. And if I judged my silences correctly, then – paradoxically – I was in those moments being paid not to say something.
As my own coaching develops, I’m realising that for me the ability to be actively present, and to live out my belief in the OK-ness of the person opposite with me, is of fundamental importance in creating a space of safety and opportunity within my coaching. I have an unnerving sense of a long journey ahead of me here: How deeply can I listen? How deeply can I uphold someone as part of their journey of becoming who they are? In those silences, how loudly (but quietly) can I cheer for them?
(With thanks to Kay Young, a colleague at the Academy of Executive Coaching, who planted the seed of this reflection article).