The scene in the photo above literally stopped my in my tracks. I was hustling from Georgetown's building on Mass Ave. to meet a friend for dinner and passed this opening between the buildings. Stunned by the glowing purple sunset, I stopped and (of course!) had to capture it with my camera. There's nothing like a gorgeous sunset to take my breath away and create a pause in my thinking and my purpose.
Powerful questioning in a coaching conversation can do the same. They can be magical. When your questions are working, they seem simple and effortless. It's not just the words we use. It's the pace and timing, and the intention behind the words. It's not just one question, either. It's a group of questions that respond to the client, build on a theme, or shift their perspective in a new direction.
And, sometimes, it's what we don't say or don't do that creates what our client needs - silence.
I was reminded of this the last time I was in DC, staying with friends and teaching coaching.
I was playing “What’s That?” with the precious two-year old son of my friends. I had turned the tables on him. Instead of being on the receiving end of his incessant questions, I was questioning him. He quickly answered when I pointed to his socks, pants, shirt, hair, and nose, but was stumped when I touched his forehead. He paused, looked around, and there was an unusual silence. I resisted the temptation to tell him the answer or move on to his arms and fingers.
After a what seemed like an endless pause, he started to speak… “ffff…”. Another pause, then “fffooorrr…”.
More quiet and glances around the room. Suddenly he looked back at me and said “fore….head!” with a big smile. I was delighted! And grateful I had allowed the silence for him to think and create a new connection between his forehead and its name.
The next day I was with a group of students, observing their coaching. One coach had the good fortune to ask a question that the client didn’t answer right away. To her credit, the coach endured the silence and waited. In our debrief discussion, the coach admitted that she was mortified, thinking that the client didn’t understand the question. The client countered that the question was a tough one. She needed the time to think. It was the perfect opportunity to remind the students that clients will tell you, pretty quickly, if they don’t understand your question.
The questions that invoke silence have taken them to a place where there isn’t an easy answer.
When you have the good fortune to create that silence, take a deep breath, stay connected to your client, and wait. What’s happening in the silence is more valuable than anything you can say.