<<< Back Posted: December 2023

Making Silence Comfortable

Silence is such a culturally sensitive topic! What do you consider to be the appropriate silence space between when one speaker ends and the other responds? Well, you are going to read my sweeping generalizations here, each with their exceptions.

In the two countries where I’ve lived most of my life – the USA and the Netherlands – normal protocol is that when one person finishes speaking, the desired and most comfortable length of silence between Speaker 1 and Speaker 2 is approximately 1-2 seconds.

In countries such as Japan and Finland, the appropriate length of silence between speakers can often be much longer. A Finn would say that the idea behind this is: “How can I respond immediately to what you just said?! First of all, I need to process the important things you have shared, and then I need to prepare a reply that is worthy of your attention.”

Then, if we consider many Latino cultures, interrupting is seen as very positive. Here the thinking is: “I’m so enthusiastic about what you are talking about that I can’t wait to reply – so I won’t!” In other words, if you are not interrupted, it may not be a great sign.

We coaches know that when we ask a particularly thought-provoking question, our coachee may need some significant time to think, in silence, before answering. Whatever their cultural background, how can we coaches make that silent space a comfortable one for our coachee – one where they can fully engage with their own thoughts and feel like they have permission to not say anything until fully ready?

Here are some of the things I say to my coachees when I hear the silence:

What we are really doing here is ‘contracting’, or agreeing with each other to spend some time in silence.

It is not only coaching conversations that can benefit from this kind of ‘contracting’. The next time your question is greeted with silence – make it official by acknowledging its legitimacy. Then enjoy what can emerge when speakers have the luxury of comfortable silence.


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