Holding the Silence: Powerful Listening

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Recently I attended a week long training to complete some credentials for the International Coaching Federation and Coach U. Although my coaching experience has aged with me, it was a refreshing week of learning. One of the important teachings for the week was holding the silence.

Silence may mean quietness or refraining from making any noise. Some powerful synonyms are stillness, hush and calm. The dictionary concludes that silence means not speaking, ignoring something, to suppress something or to stop someone from making noise.

Silence can be powerful within communication systems, including, ironically, mere conversation. As you have surely found, that silence properly placed in a heated argument can bring an element of strategic leverage and emphasis. Silence on the other end of a phone line can speak volumes or invoke fear and insecurity.

Never miss a good chance to shut up.  Will Rogers

Certain personality profiles cause people to talk more than others. Many times leaders struggle with silence for various reasons. Some reasons leaders and managers resist silence is the fear of what may fill the silence from the other person. Also, some just think they have more important things to say. Other leaders just are insecure and resistant to the fact that others possibly have a better idea or solution.

To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.  Will Durant

What was powerful and important at the coach credential training regarding this concept was what can happen in the midst of silence with a coaching client. As a class of coaches it was important that we experience the strength of silence ourselves. In one of our exercises we were coaching in triads: a coachee, a coach and an observer. I was being coached. The scenario that we brought forward in these short coaching sessions was always to be real and personal. Mine was very real, and as I shared it the coach held silence like a vice grip. I continued to tell my story. The coach held silence and I kept talking. The openness of my story grew and my personal dilemma began to have a solution. The silence provided the gateway to my finding the answer for myself.

There are times when silence has the loudest voice.  Leroy Brownlow

In business, silence is many times misused or ignored. Sometimes when Trove, Inc. is working with a company or organization we are invited to sit in meetings. I really wish you could hear what we hear. Oh yes, you have heard, haven’t you? Once when working with a small company the owner introduced me as a coach/consultant who would be working with him regarding his meeting strategies. He calmly said that I would be helping all of them to set firm agendas and to avoid talking and not engaging the team members in healthy divergent discussions. He continued for another fifteen minutes to scold them for how they did engage in the meetings. He then reiterated that I would be coaching them on how to run great and powerful meetings and to practice good communication skills. For another twenty minutes he introduced me and insulted their intelligence.

I watched as the leadership team began removing themselves from the meeting. They physically stayed in the conference room but they were long gone emotionally. If I could have videoed this it would serve me well to this day in some of the Trove training sessions on how NOT to lead a meeting. If it had gone much longer (my introduction lasted 40 minutes) it was possible that I would have:

  1. Left the room physically
  2. Burst into uncontrollable laughter
  3. Tackled the company owner to heroically save the leadership team from what was happening

He dismissed himself from the coaching session about good communication and how to run an effective meeting! What a joke and what tragedy for his team. Coaching this leadership team for a year to follow included many conversations around how their leadership meetings were incredibly one-way communication. They were so exhausted by the time they were asked for comments that there was complete silence.

This kind of silence is not productive. Many company leaders could learn from this story about their leadership teams. Some of the best ideas and comments are lost in a whirlpool of words on your part. When a leader talks and talks it sucks all of the energy and synergy out of the room. Many great creative ideas are just victims of verbal exhaustion and egocentric talkers.

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.  A Proverb

Silence, on the other hand, can be like dynamite in a conversation. As a great coach learns to hold silence, as a leader why not try it on for size? When someone listens, really listens to you, how do you feel? Do you feel understood? Do you feel appreciated? Do you feel that you have value? Holding your silence as a team member speaks will give you better insight and understanding. I believe that as you practice using silence when other leaders are speaking with you that you will become more powerful because your discernment and wisdom will go up and up. You will transform into a powerful listener who hears and understands.

Silence is also speech.  A Proverb

Next time a friend or family member is telling you a story, work hard at holding the silence. Sometimes it can become so heavy you can barely hold on. Practice this. You will be amazed, as I have been, at how you will hear more and understand more as you keep quiet. Listen behind the story. As you keep silent try to hear the essence of what they are saying. As a leader or manager this will serve you well. It actually could be life-changing for you.

Silence is sometimes the answer.  Estonian Proverb.

Remember that silence brings a calm to a conversation and the peace may even extinguish some heated emotions. It could be that you will desire to have some communication coaching or have a coach demonstrate holding the silence in your sessions to model the technique. If you have a meeting coming up or a crucial conversation, attempt to hold the silence and see what happens. This one technique may change your leadership style and bring some great power to your influence.


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