Coaches, Facilitators, Teachers: The Gift of Silence

A woman with a finger over her mouth, implying "Shhh!," on a background with bulrushes.


If you are a coach, facilitator or teacher, the gift of silence is an invaluable part of learning. Are you judiciously making use of it in your lessons?

Here is the tweet that gave birth to this post. There is a time and place to make use of silence in your classes.

Hear This

If someone you are working with has hearing loss, there is an additional burden that can impact learning. Hearing requires a lot of brain power. When there is a lot of well-intentioned chatter during instruction, the brain works especially hard to decode what is being said.

If you are leading a class, keep in mind that you may be making things more difficult for the learner. The brain is involved in a tug o' war: to understand what is being said and also to observe what is going on in the body. It can be an exhausting experience! As a result, it's not an ideal learning situation

We all know that silence on air is to be avoided at all costs. We live in a noisy world and often silence is elusive. It can also make people nervous.

Consider this quote from In Pursuit of Silence - Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik:

"Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don't regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life." (Page 35)

Look for ways to measure out silence to enrich the experiences of those who are with you to learn, change and grow.

In How To Use Silence as a Teaching Tool, you can see how silence is something that can be deafening:

"Many of us may remember silence in school negatively. An uncomfortable silence with an upset teacher, the punishment of silent work time, or being silent because we were afraid to speak up or didn’t know the answer. This is not the kind of silence we want to foster, but it is often the silence that exists in schools. How can we change the role of silence in our own classroom?"

Benefits of Silence

When used effectively, silence can provide a prodigious experience. It can lead to those "Eureka!" or "A-Ha!" moments. It is an effective strategy to help someone develop their internal awareness in order to reveal insights and discover unresourceful habits.

In Pursuit of Silence - Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, George Prochnik writes:

"Even brief silence, it seems, can inject us with a fertile unknown; a space in which to focus and absorb experience—a reminder that the person we are with may yet surprise us; a reflection that some things we cannot put into words are yet resoundingly real; a reawakening to our dependency on something greater than ourselves." (Page 49)

The following excerpt from How To Use Silence in Therapy and Counseling can easily be used in coaching or teaching situations. It explains how silence can be an effective tongue loosening tool:

"Avoid filling the awkward silences with your unpolished thoughts. Suppose you are anxious during silence and jump in to end it. In that case, you may signal to the client that something is wrong when it is quiet, which may make them feel more awkward during the silences than necessary. This response could encourage them to talk endlessly to keep the conversation going, which essentially eliminates the space needed for reflection."

Encourage Discovery

When you work with people, you likely use a variety of techniques to deepen learning. Next time you are in front of a client, student or class, give them instructions without filling in the blanks. Use the discovery method. Ask open-ended questions, which encourages people to make their own observations. What thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories come to mind? Silence gives permission for reflection.

Don't be like the police in a fifties procedural, where the witness is led into identifying the perpetrator. Allow time for the person to make their own observations:

For example, when I work with clients to help them address and undress their stress, I often follow a format similar to this:

  • What do you feel? Solicit answers.
  • Go deeper and ask more questions.
  • Has your breathing changed?
  • Are you clenching, gripping or loosening your hands, toes, stomach?
  • Solicit answers.
  • Redirect attention.
  • Repeat the exercise using newfound awareness.

Quieting Your Day

If you are not taking a class, find ways to incorporate silence/quiet into your day.

Besides meditation, there are other ways to find silence.

When you are outside, turn off your devices and get in touch with the surround sounds - the acoustics - of nature. How do you feel? Initially, many of you may feel uncomfortable, but stick with it. The silence may be just the thing to massage you into a greater sense of equilibrium.

"The gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax. New research explains how, for the first time." - It's true: The sound of nature helps us relax

In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik reminded me of how snowfall in a city is magical. I remember getting up early before teaching, to go for a walk and drink in that delicious hush that descends upon a city when snow drapes a blanket over everything. If you live in an area that receives snow, take time to appreciate the hush that descends upon your area after a snowstorm.

Many of you know that I'm a swimmer. One of the benefits of COVID-19 is that music is no longer played during public swims. This allows me to enjoy "Zen swimming." I can relax into the rhythm of my strokes and enjoy the refreshing feel of the water without the soundtrack, which may or may not be to my liking.

From This Is Your Brain on Silence:

"Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence."

Throughout your day, take the time to experience quiet. Do it for the health of it!

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