“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.” ~ Euripides
How comfortable are you with periods of silence during conversations? Do you feel uncomfortable? Are you compelled to fill the void and keep the cascade of words flowing?
I was prompted to think about this by a short article I read recently by Angela Dunbar, in which she claims that almost all coaching and talking therapies are designed to work by encouraging the client to open up and talk about what’s happening for them, to speak their thinking aloud and verbalize any insights they may be having. All of this is based on the (not unreasonable) assumption that, by expressing out loud what’s going on in your mind, problems will be unpicked and solutions found.
The article goes on to point to research in the field of cognitive psychology (see paper by Schooler, Ohlsson, and Brooks) that suggests that the act of verbalizing thoughts actually prevents insights arising. This may be because the brain has limited resources, and if they are concentrated on the conscious activity of talking, there is reduced capacity for the non-conscious activities that are necessary for insight to occur. The research evidence suggests that insight involves processes that are distinct from language, and which benefit from not being distracted by speech.
This is excellent food for thought for coaches, counsellors and therapists alike, and raises the importance of silence. When a client is unable, or unwilling, to provide a quick answer to a question, and instead wants to reflect silently for a while, perhaps that is the most useful kind of response you can get at that moment.
But, what is going on in the head of the coach or therapist during periods of silence? Perhaps, if you are an executive coach, you are worrying that you are being paid to coach and not sit there doing nothing while your client uses up valuable time not speaking. After all, you have been hired to ask questions, to challenge, and to probe, as well as listen attentively to your client’s reflections. Haven’t you?
I have felt the discomfort of silence, and, on occasions, felt the desire to ask another (yet another!) question – assuming that the previous one hadn’t landed well enough. With experience, I have come to realise that the reality is just the opposite. The best questions create periods of silence. They make the client think on a deeper level, they generate reflection, and take the client to another place. And, backed up by the research in the article above, create the ‘silent’ conditions where insights happen.
As a coach I want my clients to create new neural connections in their brain. As we acquire greater understanding of the neuroplastic properties of the brain, it is becoming clearer that it is the creation of these connections that we recognise as ‘insights. These insights (or ‘aha’ moments) arise from deep thinking and reflection. They also emerge from internal states of conflict, confusion and the mental effort involved in attempting to resolve incongruous or oppositional information. Silence, and an associated mental state of calm reflection, is an ideal platform for insight to occur. It’s time to embrace the power of silence.
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