- February 7, 2020
- Posted by: Stephen Burt
- Category: Coaching
One of the unexpected joys of writing a book on listening is that people I meet often share their views and experiences of listening. And the part that silence plays in good listening is a frequent topic.
Theodor Reik said of therapy that “The silence of the analyst works upon the patient encouragingly, and works even more strongly than words could”. I have found the same in coaching: silence both embodies the listener’s attentiveness and helps create the environment in which the speaker can think and wishes to speak.
Beneath these observations is the truth that silence has many forms and many functions.
In my book, I suggest that there can be:
- A patient silence that allows a recent exchange to settle
- The calm, expectant silence when the speaker is on the cusp of some new awareness
- The curious silence that can follow a challenge
- The satisfying silence when a conversation is nearing a natural conclusion.*
So silence is not an absence. There may be no words, no sounds, but silence can be ripe with meaning, impactful and deeply felt.
But to notice a silence and what it might mean, you need to be still and quiet. Outwardly and inwardly. And that takes practice.
You can practise by noticing, in everyday life, the different silences you encounter. For example:
- The silence of acceptance when all that needs to be said has been said
- The silence of parting
- The comfortable silence of shared understanding
- The silence when words would not be enough
- The silence of recognition
- The awkward silence of embarrassment
- The dramatic silence of surprise, of being lost for words
- The silence when the walls between two people are too fixed and familiar for any words to get through
- The deep silence of love
- A silence full of awe inspired by a magnificent mountain, forest or lake.
By noticing these silences you can nurture your acceptance of silence and your sensitivity to its qualities. You can then hear what’s being said when nothing is being spoken. And that is one of the marks of the great listener.
*The Art of Listening in Coaching and Mentoring, p. 58. Available here:
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