Imagine that you are coaching someone, and you both agree that it is time to focus on generating possible solutions to the challenge at hand. So you ask your coachee: “How can you achieve this goal?” Without any hesitation, you receive an answer. What do you do next?
Let’s take a case in point. A few years ago I was coaching someone who wanted to get better at giving strategic presentations, especially to senior management. We had already explored what had gone well and less well in the past, conditions that have an impact on performance, the advantages to achieving the goal and the disadvantages of not achieving it. By this point, his motivation was solidly in place. With both of us keen to get to solutions, the conversation went something like this:
I asked, “What can you do to improve your presentations skills when presenting to senior management?” My coachee quickly replied, “I can take a course.”
Tempted to explore possible courses, and whether there was a budget for a course available, etc. etc., I simply made note and asked, “What else?” He quickly replied, “I can get a presentation coach.”
I thought about exploring the qualities of the ideal presentation coach, but didn’t. Instead I inquired, “And what else can you do?” There was a slight pause, and then he answered, “Well, I could go on YouTube and check out the techniques of some of my favorite speakers. (pause) And TedTalks. Mmm. I’d like that.”
I noted once more, and then said, “What other things might you do?” There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window. Then he said, “David. He is quite good. I’d love to have coffee with him and pick his brain. (pause) And I really need to watch him more consciously when he presents next time, and figure out what it is he is doing exactly that works so well.”
“Mmmm.” I said, noting these new ideas. “And what else would work for you?” This pause was even longer, and I waited. Finally he said, “Well, a couple of my team members have attended some senior management meetings, and they’ve seen me in action. I bet they would be happy to give me candid feedback and suggestions.”
Tempted to ask who he might speak with and what questions he might ask, I just said “Ok. Anything else?” After a very, very long silence, he said “Well frankly, if I am really serious about this, I should practice my next presentation several times before I actually have to give it. (pause) I could even film myself. Yes! Yes! It would be so useful to observe myself in action! Then, when I finally like what
I see, I will have the confidence to do a repeat performance when it really matters!”
When he was out of ideas, we reviewed each option he had generated, and then moved eagerly on to action planning.
While some of those post-question silences were pretty long, I don’t even think that my coachee noticed them. He was very busy creating. His first ideas were probably not new, because his answers came immediately after the question was posed. But because I kept asking the same question (with different words) over and over again, his mind kept creating, and the pauses between question and answer got longer and longer.
My general guideline in these situations is “The longer the silence, the newer the idea.”
There are two things to avoid once you have carefully crafted this creative moment: