The phrase “I don’t know” holds a lot of uncertainty for coaches when a client uses that as a response. It can easily throw coaches into their own “I don’t know what to do” existential crisis, sending them into some rapid emergency response to elicit anything from the client. If you have ever asked in response, “What would you know if you did know?” You know what I am talking about. As a professional coach, evolving a capacity of presence and developing a coaching mindset that embraces the power of silence, mainly when clients express uncertainty, is part of the evolution of mastery. This post will dive into the beautiful dance between silence and communication.

The Profound Impact of Silence in Coaching Conversations

Imagine listening to a coaching demonstration where the client says, “I don’t know…” and both the coach and client sit in silence for what seems like a long time, maybe a minute or so. Then the coach asks, “What just happened in that silence?” To which the client has a thoughtful and insightful response. “I am noticing my confusion.” Or “I felt my stomach clenching up.” This is a beautiful example of silence being an incredible tool that can deepen client awareness and understanding, foster introspection, and spark insight. When you integrate silence into your coaching practice, you offer clients room to ponder and process their thoughts. It also gives you a great stepping off into further exploration. “What does your stomach clenching up tell you is important?” The coach and client are now dancing the dance of curiosity.

Silence and curiosity work together to cultivate a safe space for clients to examine their values, emotions, stories, somatic responses, and beliefs. As a coach, you can encourage clients to take the reins of their journey and unearth their unique answers. By weaving silence into your sessions, you can better embody presence, listening, and trust.

Listening to the Unspoken Language

When a client hesitates and says, “I don’t know,” it is vital to recognize the deeper underlying need that the words might not explicitly articulate. Clearly, there is a desire to “know.” What often happens is you, as the coach, in the discomfort of silence, either try to fill the space with either more questions or an over-explanation of the already asked question. What might be available if you interpret the “I don’t know” into “I don’t know… yet.”

By being curious and listening actively, you can tune into the emotional and psychological messages that your client is muddling through. There is richness below the surface if you can give it a moment or two.

Here are some methods for you to actively listen when a client expresses uncertainty:

• Embrace presence: Focus on your client, both physically and mentally.
• Reflect and clarify: Summarize the client’s power words or share themes that have emerged in the conversation, which can support your client in having a spark of insight.
• Pose open-ended questions: Support clients in exploring their thoughts and emotions by asking questions encouraging deeper thinking, such as “What obstacles might the “I don’t know” help you ignore?” or “How does this uncertainty impact you?” or “What is between the “I don’t know and your goal?”

Fostering Trust and Safety with Silence

When a client admits they “don’t know,” they may genuinely not know, yet they may “know” and not like the knowledge or have some unresolved concerns around the knowing. As a coach, creating an atmosphere where clients feel comfortable expressing vulnerability and examining their uncertainties, is demonstrated with curiosity. Let’s explore how you might harness the power of silence to build trust and safety:

Embrace the quiet: By staying silent, you can give your client space and time to process their thoughts and emotions. Allowing them to sit with their uncertainty without rushing to provide solutions.

Validate their experience: Acknowledge the courage it takes for clients to admit they don’t know something. Offer compassionate and nonjudgmental support by saying, “It’s okay not to know. We’ll explore this together.”

Use silence to deepen the conversation: When appropriate, use silence as an opportunity to ask more profound, reflective questions, such as “What can you learn from this uncertainty?” or “How might you use not knowing as an opportunity for growth?”

The Delicate Dance of Silence and Communication

While silence is a potent tool, you need to strike a balance between silence and speaking in coaching sessions. Here are some ways you can achieve this balance:

Tune into your client’s needs: Every client is unique, and some may need more silence, while others may benefit from more curiosity. Pay attention to nonverbal cues and adjust your approach accordingly.

There are many places you can go with curiosity that will invite your clients’ insights and awareness. Adding to the questions from earlier, curiosity might show up in some of these areas of exploration: “Where in your body does the ‘I don’t know’ reside?” Or “What part of you has a sense of what the ‘I don’t know’ is wanting to share?” Or, “If the ‘I don’t know’ is one voice, what other voices do you have that might have something to share?”

Any of these questions will support insights around the “I don’t know” and offer your client avenues to explore where they may know. Play with how you use your body language, facial expressions, and attentive presence to convey your engagement and support during periods of silence. You don’t need to nod your head wildly, but what is your calm face of encouragement? How do you project that energy? If you are nervous in the silence, you can unintentionally communicate that nervousness and impact your client’s interpretation of the silence as well. Instead of a space of trust and wonder, it can become a space of discomfort.

Ultimately Silence is a Tool

Mastering the art of silence in professional coaching is an invaluable skill that can enrich your clients’ self-discovery and personal growth through insight and self-awareness. By weaving together silence and curiosity, you create and communicate an environment of trust and safety.

Add in active listening, and you empower clients to face their uncertainties and explore their emotions. As a coach, you must remain in tune with each client’s unique needs, preferences, and nonverbal cues, adapting your use of silence accordingly. Silence is a hugely important tool for the coach who is willing to embrace it to allow their clients the space to discover untapped wisdom.

Continually reflecting on your coaching practice and balancing silence and questions that evoke awareness will allow you to serve your clients better and support them in unlocking their full potential. By embracing the power of silence, you can create transformative coaching experiences that guide clients toward a deeper understanding of themselves and their path forward.

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Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC, author of StoryJacking: Change Your Dialogue, Transform Your Life and the Reflective Coach, and the new book, Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors. Lyssa is a Confidence Coach, Certified Mentor Coach, Coaching Super-Vision Partner, ICF PCC Assessor, and coaching educator. Using her understanding of the ICF Core Competencies and her knowledge of Neuroscience, Lyssa works with Professional Coaches to expand the capacity to partner with their clients through how they show up and hold the space for those with whom they work.

Lyssa is the creator of the Power of Metaphor Certification Program. Giving coaches new ways to tune their ears to hear the powerful metaphors their clients bring forward and discovering how to leverage the important metaphors to create stronger agreements, build trust and safety, allow the client to lead, and ultimately evoke powerful embodied awareness.

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