A Cheat Sheet by Drs. Glenn and Sharon Livingston
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Glenn Livingston, Ph.D. CHEAT SHEET How to Use Silence in Your Coaching Sessions Sharon Livingston, Ph.D. c Originally trained as a psychologist, Dr. Glenn Livingston has helped literally thousands of clients. Along with his wife Sharon, he’s sold consulting, teambuilding, and workshops to big names like AT&T, Nextel, Panasonic, Whirlpool, Novartis, Lipton, Colgate-Palmolive, Kraft, and Panasonic. Their work, research, and theories have been seen in major media publications like The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Crain’s NY Business, AdWeek, America West, and more! "According to Our Students We Run One of the Most Powerful Certification Programs for Coaches Who Want to Grow a Thriving Practice...And Now You Can TEST-DRIVE It for a $25 One Time Payment!”
How to Use Silence in Your Coaching Sessions
Silence is Best Evaluated by the Results It Produces
EVALUATING YOUR USE OF SILENCE AS A COACH: The goal of coaching is always to help clients accomplish their goals. What’s more, we want to help them do this in a relatively pleasant and enjoyable manner—and one in which they understand they’re making consistent progress. If they become too uncomfortable they’ll stop coaching before they achieve their goals. But if you don’t push them hard enough they won’t make progress and you’ll get a similar result.
So perhaps the best way to evaluate your use of silence with any given client is this: “Is your client making progress towards their goal, and do they see this is the case?” If the answer to both of these is “yes” then you’re probably using silence correctly. If not, you may wish to more closely evaluate how and when you’re using silence to try and improve the situation.
THE POSITIVE USE OF SILENCE: Positive changes in behavior are generally accompanied and/or preceded by positive changes in thinking. And this “reworking of thoughts” is something you just can’t do entirely for your client. You can introduce new ideas… but ultimately it’s their brain which has to do the work of replacing the “old tapes” with more constructive ones. Sometimes the client needs to “think new thoughts” to themselves for a little bit before they feel safe to say out loud. From this perspective, when the silence is eventually broken by the client with a new thought—or ANY new information about themselves which could be relevant to their goal—then that silence was probably a positive experience.
Silence Can Often Give Your Client a “Peaceful Place to Think”
Silence Can Also Be a Scary, Empty Place
THE NEGATIVE USE OF SILENCE: Unfortunately, clients can also use silence to beat up on themselves, reinforce negative thought patterns, and generally feel abandoned, isolated, and alone.
You’ll know if the silence was perceived negatively by what follows when the silence is broken. If it’s just more “old tapes” and “downward cycling” thoughts and feelings, you probably let it go on too long and should intervene sooner with the client in the future.
SILENCE PUTS THE BURDEN ON YOUR CLIENT: Silence forces the client to do more of the work.
That’s because in a dialogue, there’s an expectation of a continued flow of thoughts and ideas. In silence, your client needs to “fill in the gaps.”
Now, in and of itself it’s neither good nor bad to put the work burden on your client… only results will tell. Think of yourself kind of like a personal trainer: If a trainer does all the exercises for their client, there’ll be no progress whatsoever.
But if the trainer gives the client too much weight, too many exercises, and/or doesn’t let the client recover in between sets, that client will burn out—and they’ll avoid future sessions because the workout was too painful. You’re always looking for a BALANCE.
Use silence to get your client to do enough of the work that their “muscles” grow, but not so much that they avoid the next workout!
It only takes one bad session to lose a client— especially in the beginning. So if you’re not sure about silence, err on the side of talking.
WHEN IN DOUBT ERR ON THE SIDE OF TALKING: Because it can only take ONE really bad session to scare a client away from coaching—particularly in the beginning of the relationship—and because you won’t know with any particular client what the exact right talk-to-listen ratio is until you’ve gone through a half dozen or so experiments (they’re all different), it’s generally better to err on the side of talking. If you have an inkling the silence is too uncomfortable, ask a simple, factual question. The kind that begs for answers that nobody could ever pass judgment on. Ideally this is related to what the client was last talking about. For example, if the client was talking about their sister and then fell silent, ask something like “is she older or younger than you?” or “where does your sister live?” Stay away from opinion questions
USE YOUR SENSE OF THE RELATIONSHIP TOO: Another way to look at the client’s experience of silence has to do with their sense of connectedness to you in the relationship at the moment. If you really “felt” the client during the session up until the silent moment…and you feel in your heart of hearts she is experiencing you right there with her even though neither of you is talking, then more often than not you’ll find this was a positive experience. (And you can let it go longer). But if you sense a kind of “disconnected” feeling between you on any particular session, you should probably work harder to talk and re-establish the connection before allowing silence for too long.
NO BLACK AND WHITE RULES: As you can probably tell from reading everything above, there aren’t any “black and white” rules for silence in a coaching session. The exact same amount of silence which one client experiences as “just enough room to think” can be experienced by another as “torturous abandonment” and a reason to leave you by another. You’re going to have to work with each individual client to get a sense of how much contact vs. how much room them need to be maximally productive. And you judge based on the results!
Your own personal judgment and skill in the constructive use of silence in coaching sessions is something which definitely improves with practice. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons we include LIVE supervision 7 days a week in our coach certification program. You’ll have PLENTY of opportunity to not only practice using silence in sessions with your peers, but to ask both Sharon, myself, and a crew of experienced Master Coaches for feedback about your experience. You can also present your real clients for supervision!
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