Silence is golden: holding space in coaching

Inward reflection

In therapeutic settings, whether these are talking interactions, process-based approaches or other interventions that bring about change for a client, there is a key part of the session that will be dedicated to creating a space to allow for inward reflection. This is not only desired but, in my experience, essential for the progression and development of the individual looking for change in his/her life.

Creating this space for reflection is key to my practice as Head of Training at the Smart School as I teach these techniques and, as well as learning to help others, the students on the course find they experience transformation in their own lives as a result.

Quite often the growth and progress happens for the client between sessions, when they are out in the world living their daily lives and interacting with others. This can be observed in the way patterns of behaviour start to change and the individual’s internalised self-talk starts to shift to being more self-loving and nurturing.

Transformational coaching

When we look back at the roots of coaching, it is usually regarded as a purely non-advisory, goal-oriented approach to helping clients move from where they are towards a desired outcome.

The coach will traditionally help someone to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-Phased) goals and ask questions to help the client move towards the end aim.

In addition to supporting an end goal with a performance goal, goals need to be PURE (Positively stated, Understood, Relevant and Ethical and CLEAR (Challenging, Legal, Environmentally sound, Appropriate and Recorded)1.

This is a more traditional approach adopted by many coaches to help clients achieve what they desire. This can be useful in performance coaching. However, in my experience, adopting only an action-oriented approach is not always most effective or, indeed, most transformational for a client. People generally have a higher degree of self-awareness before they come to a coaching session and will require more than a tick box action plan as an end result.

When I look at the results that clients are getting from my coaching sessions, it seems to me that the transformational shifts sit at deeper levels of experience.

People are made up of beliefs and values as well as filters of experience and the architecture of the client’s life will be constructed from these.

Coaching is multi-faceted and will be made up of purposeful questioning, active listening, trust, rapport, challenge and curiosity.

In my experience, another element of coaching that is widely talked about but not so universally understood is that of holding space.

So what does this mean in practice?

Holding space

Within coaching conversations and interactions with clients, there will be pockets of time in which the coach remains silent and asks no questions. This is valuable time for the client to
think about his/her response to a previous question. The response will come from the client’s own reflection and inner conversations.

This is when coaching can have the most impact and be the most useful for the client. Here, it isn’t so much what the coach says but he/she doesn’t say that can make all the difference.

Silence is a critical part of the session and in this silence there needs to be a trust that the client can con”dently and without shame express what he/she needs and wants to express in that moment. As coaches, we need to hold this moment in a way that leaves the client feeling understood, not judged, and creatively free to express him/herself.

This time can be quite emotional for the client; they may shift from a previous questioning approach into a process of self-analysis and also self-realisation of any unhappiness about how they are living their lives and interacting with others.

There could be emotional outbursts, which may include tears, exasperation and other emotions that need to be expressed and released. The important thing is that we don’t try to interrupt this !ow and process. We need to allow it to unfold and also not be fearful of these emotional displays.

We need to realise that we are just allowing the client to be themselves and giving them permission to be emotional in that moment. We are not there to jump in and fix the situation or ‘care take’ in a way that would leave them disempowered and not learning from their own experience.

This is what I mean by holding space.

Case study

At this point I would like to talk about a recent client with whom I worked and what happened within this session, which illustrates the levels of transformation that can unfold within a session and its positive impact.

Wendy came to me for coaching. She had an understanding of coaching initially from workplace coaching that she had been asked to do with colleagues. Her life had recently taken a new direction and she knew that she wanted to get out of what she considered to be a very rigid work environment and, in her own words, ‘the rat race’. She wanted to take the next step and gain clarity in what she wanted to create in her life.

In our first contact over the phone we had a general discussion about what she was looking to achieve from working with me, and what she wanted to focus on in the session.

In all coaching, we need to work towards a desired outcome, whether that is a practical task-based action plan or a change in how someone is living his or her life currently, although, unlike the typical goal-setting approach, this is not set in stone.

In Wendy’s session, and with a strong element of trust at the core of our interaction, we were able to get into the problem area and her initial frustrations with her current situation.

From my position as Wendy’s coach, it was important to allow her to first open up and tell her story, without judgment from me and also without me needing to jump in and ‘fix’ her or come up with any solutions.

The important part of the interaction was being able to hold space in the session, which gave Wendy permission to talk about whatever was bothering her without the fear of being reprimanded, the very dynamic of which was part of the problem for her in her workplace.

The session then moved on to what she would prefer her life to be like, what was important to her, and how this would give her more of what she desired.

We were able to look at Wendy’s values in bigger life terms and start to really go beneath the surface of what was important to her so that she could start to move forward towards a better place and live a life in accordance with her values.

From this exploration into Wendy’s world, the key values that surfaced were doing what she loved and being able to help others in congruent ways that could also help to create a successful business. We were able to spend some time at this juncture exploring what she meant by ‘a successful business’ and using hypothetical questioning to start allowing Wendy to visualise this.

However the key question that sparked off the transformational process was, ‘What is stopping you from creating this for yourself right now?’

At this moment we were able to get into the core of the issue for Wendy and work on a very deep level of impact.

Wendy then explained that she wanted to start a family and in her mind she couldn’t move forward to doing this and at the same time be successful in business on her own terms. She felt that she could either be a mother or have a business helping people move forward in their lives but could not see how she could have both.

This was a fascinating insight into Wendy’s world and how, by her own admission and insights, she was potentially limiting herself in what she really wanted and could not see how it was possible for both areas of her life to work in tandem.

We then started to explore her beliefs and how she believed that she could not have both even though, on further questioning, there was no real evidence to suggest she was not able to be both a successful businessperson and also a mother.

The core of this was being able to help Wendy understand how she was limiting herself through her own ‘self talk’, how these internal thought processes were affecting her in such profound ways and how she felt about this – some of which was based on beliefs adopted from others in her life.

Again through simple questioning and allowing space for her to feel this on an emotional and physiological level, Wendy was able to experience some of the pain and frustration and recognise that her beliefs were not serving her well. This allowed her to get to grips with how much she was limiting her own potential.

With further questioning, Wendy was able to understand how she felt and how she was seeing herself. This reflective process was deeply empowering for her and she was able to voice that she saw herself as a ‘warrior’ in terms of what she had been through and experienced up to this point in her life.

I allowed her to sit with the vision of being a warrior and also asked her to imagine being this way and having everything that she wanted. She closed her eyes and again, through holding space, she was able to internalise this visual concept and build on the positive feelings that this would create for her.

The transformation was factual and observed, based on the physiological cues of change once she opened her eyes. Her tonality of voice was more energised and she was able to release some of the emotion in tears. Using feedback, I highlighted this change and asked what had happened for her. She had understood at a deep level of experience how she could in fact have both, – be a mother and also have a business that would give her success and also help people.

With this new understanding, we then looked to the future, to imagining now what it would be like living the life she wanted, with both things in place.

The session came to a natural conclusion after 40 minutes and Wendy reported that she was ‘blown away’ by the experience and could now move ahead with renewed confidence and conviction about what she truly wanted and could achieve, having experienced what it could be like rather than just talking about it.

This was not standard coaching but transformational coaching.

Holding space in practice

ReflectionFrom a practical standpoint there are a few techniques that can be built into the session that will be useful to help create the space and allow you as the coach to hold it effectively.

  1. Hold eye contact – don’t be too intense but do allow for the client to feel held by a psychological cue from you as his/her coach.
  2. Don’t try to pacify the client by changing his/her emotional state and rushing in with tissues and sympathy.
  3. Allow displays of any emotion that surface, whether that is frustration, anger, sadness or joy.
  4. Keep the same distance between you and the client and do not shift around to create any further distance due to you being uncomfortable – this visual cue is an unspoken act of understanding.
  5. When you do re-engage in the conversation, check that your tone is not parental or judgmental but empathic and supportive.
  6. Check in with the client that they are ok to move on and continue with the session.
  7. What have they learnt from this and how was it useful? Acknowledge and accept any emotion and highlight its benefits to the client by linking it to any possible goals and future learning for them to move ahead in positive ways.

Holding space is quite often a process of simply allowing someone to sit with the pain of not getting what they want in their life and the frustrations that this can cause them, allowing a vision to form of how they can move forward with renewed hope and, finally, when the time is right, helping the client create and take positive steps to move ahead with more happiness and confidence.

We cannot, however, rush this process; letting the coaching session unfold naturally and in its own way, punctuated by these pockets of crucial space, will mean that the coaching has the most impact on the deeper levels of meaning for the client. This will help create powerful transformational shifts.

Coaching does not need to be a complex twist and turn of highbrow questions. Rather, it is a facilitative journey of exploration with the client at the centre of the interaction.

It is also not even about the questions you ask, as the coach; it is simply allowing people to just ‘sit’ in the experience of their own lives and feel on an emotional level the impact of not getting what they want and what they would prefer to have.

Above all, holding space is about being confident in the silence and just being you, without trying to fix the client, change the course of the session or coming up with the solution.

Trust the process and be inspired by the results you get. „

1 Whitmore J. Coaching for performance. GROWing human potential and purpose: the principles and practice of coaching and leadership (4th edition). London: Nicholas Brealey, 2009.


cognitive-behavioural-coachingAbout The Author

Paul Kensett is a life coach and founder of Paul Kensett Training and Coaching solutions and a qualified coach and NLP Practitioner.

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