Learn to Love Silence in Your Coaching Sessions! | Get "Heart to Heart" with Julie Johnson MCC

Client pondering powerful coaching question sat at desk with laptop

In this "Heart to Heart with Julie" column, Julie Johnson MCC shares sample coaching conversations and situations to help you grow along with her learnings, ideas and practical tips to help us all become better coaches. These are real coaching experiences that illustrate common issues coaches face.

We encourage you to share your thoughts, learnings and own experiences in the comments below!

These articles were first posted on Julie's blog, The Coaching Cube, and have been updated for inclusion here.

Do you get stressed out when a coachee is silent for too long?

Well, here's a coaching story and a precious teaching moment from participants in a 9-month program I offer through Julie Johnson Coaching called Coaching is an Art. This program focuses on bringing leadership to the next level by developing coaching skills.

On this day I was in the room observing two leaders peer-coaching each other. Each leader came from a different company. Let's call them Johan (coach) and Christina (coachee).

Here's what happened:

Christina had an important issue to bring to the table. She had a direct report (who we'll call Harry) who found it extremely difficult to say no to requests.

Because Harry kept saying 'yes', and because his work was of such high quality, he'd ended up with too much on his plate for too long. Christina was worried that he was perilously close to a severe burnout.

  • Johan asked Christina: "What signs do you see that give you the idea that Harry’s on the edge?"
  • Silence followed, and Johan was getting uncomfortable.
  • So Johan continued with, "I mean, is Harry looking more tired? Or, is he getting overly emotional? Or, does he act depressed, or something?"
  • Then, instead of answering the initial, open question from Johan, Christina found herself reacting to Johan's (limited) menu of options that had followed.

We had quite the debrief discussion about that particular moment, afterward.

Here's what we learned:

So what emerged was that:

  • Johan's initial question had triggered the beginning of a very insightful new awareness about how Harry's behavior had recently changed. We found Johan's question actually quite clever.
  • This insightful thought process was then interrupted by Johan's following (closed) questions.
    • With his follow-on question, Johan suggested possibilities he was thinking of (even though he had never met Harry) in order to fill the awkward-feeling silence that hung heavy after his initial open question.
  • Christina explained:
    • "Actually, that first question was spot-on! I needed time to figure out my answer, and I was quite busy doing just that. BUT, you interrupted the great thought process you had created, with your follow-on questions."

The takeaway:

Coaches, when you ask an authentic, open, and thought-provoking question, and it is followed by silence—fabulous! YOU'RE ON A ROLL!

One could even hypothesize that:

  • The shorter the post-question silence, the less thought-provoking the question
  • The longer the post-question silence, the more thought-provoking the question

Now it's your turn:

In the super-short example above, we see what happens when we jump in prematurely during coaching: when we don't allow silence and when we allow our discomfort to lead the conversation!

Instead, take the silence following your question to be one of the biggest compliments you could receive! You've just produced the conditions for creative sparks.

So I invite you to let your questions land with your coachee, sit there in (extended, and hopefully relaxed) silence, and watch those sparks fly!

Share your thoughts with Julie in the comments below.

If you liked this "Heart to Heart" column from Julie Johnson, you may also like:

Julie Johnson

Contributing Author:

Julie Johnson MCC, MIM is an Executive Coach, Coach Supervisor and Author. Her purpose is to help motivated people be at their best. She's passionate about spreading quality coaching conversations farther and wider, impacting the lives of people she'll never meet. Julie helps leaders develop an authentic Coaching Leadership Style so they grow next-generation leaders - and scale their own leadership. She also loves creating synergies by connecting 'the right people' with each other. Meet Julie in this short video here and learn more about her on her website here. You can also sign up for her monthly blog The Coaching Cube.

Learn more about Julie & see all their articles here >>

Image of Thoughtful client pondering powerful question at desk with laptop by Jacob Lund via Shutterstock


  1. Donna Norton

    Sometimes, the best insights come from those moments of quiet contemplation. Jumping in too soon can disrupt that natural flow of conversation and prevent deeper insights from emerging. Thanks for sharing this teaching moment, Julie!


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