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  • Matthew Davies

Silence

Yesterday I caught up with my good friend and former colleague Liz to chat through some material she's designing and share our experiences and ideas. Catching up with Liz is always fun because she's a firecracker of energy, ideas and enthusiasm! We worked together for the last five years of our time in financial services, ultimately taking voluntary redundancy and leaving the company on the same day. Staying in touch, supporting one another on our respective journeys into self employment has meant a lot to me over the past ten months.


The main topic of discussion was a set of leadership interventions that Liz has been working through with some of her clients, as well as some more ideas which she's fleshing out for future sessions. In discussing these and throwing ideas around, we spoke a lot about our experiences as coaches, facilitators and consultants over the years and how our approaches have, and continue to evolve.


One of the major areas in which we've both grown has been in the amount of content that we squeeze into our sessions!


In the early days (and even in some of the later ones!) we have both been guilty of cramming in far too much content for the time available. Loads of models, tools, techniques and ideas, one after the other. When we spoke about it, we had the same positive motivations for doing so; we wanted to share our knowledge and we wanted our clients to feel like they were getting value for money. More content = better value - or so we had told ourselves!


The truth, as we've both come to discover, is that more content does not mean more value!


When people attend a training course or a coaching session of any kind, more often than not, we have an idea in our heads that we'll leave at the end of the day and then find the time to sit down and reflect on what we've learned and how we can best apply it to our lives or our work, in order to make the required changes which were the catalyst for attending the course in the first place. Generally however, what happens is that we leave the course, get punched in the face by emails, meetings and the other things that make up our days and that time never comes. Weeks pass, we forget much of what we've heard and we don't get the behaviour change that we're looking for. That doesn't represent value.


And sometimes this isn't driven by the consultant. Recently, at the request of a client, I designed a 120 minute session on leading teams through change which contained TWO separate change models! Using models and frameworks can be really powerful in helping clients make sense of their situation and can give them a way to visualise their circumstances or tell an effective story, but creating a session which not only has two separate models for the same thing, but also requires a slide to explain how the two models relate to one another, is not a good use of the limited time! Less is more and thankfully, with some pushback, I was able to convince the client that the right thing to do was not to muddy the water and to pick one model, allowing more time for the delegates to reflect on their circumstances, their desired outcomes and what they need to do to get there.


The mantra that we both kept coming back to was 'tell me what I need to know, not everything that you know' - reminding us that the true measure of a good session is what the client does afterwards, not how much you've shared with them. As such, we need to think about building in time for thought, reflection, sharing of ideas and experience and allowing the delegates to plan what will happen once they leave the room. At times, when you're building out sessions and planning in 10/15/20/30 mins of reflection time or pairs discussion on a topic, you feel like a bit of a fraud! 'I'm charging this client to have their people sit in silence and think things over - I'm not even doing anything while they do it!' But the reality is that finding that silence and that space is crucial and with myriad distractions around us all, it's harder today than ever. If we don't build it into our sessions, it might never happen and the opportunity is lost.

The same applies in coaching. When I work with leaders one on one or with teams, as a coach, I recognise that the things that really matter are building rapport to create the right environment, listening and asking great questions to generate reflection and insight in the client. Again, in the early days as a coach, I put too much emphasis on the questioning, sometimes peppering the client with several questions in one (known as question stacking). I was unwittingly throwing as much as I could at the wall, in order to find something that stuck. My coaching sessions, at times, resembled an interview and the style and pacing meant that the client answers were often short and I found myself asking too many closed questions. It not only stifled the client but it put a lot of pressure on me to be coming up with this barrage of questions!


The I slowed down. I begun to ask fewer questions. More open questions. More 'zooming out' questions that allowed the client to think and reflect on the bigger picture, rather than 'zooming in' to the detail. And the experience became much better for both of us! I felt more relaxed and much more able to listen and focus and find the nuance in what was (and wasn't) being said. The client had more time and space to reflect. To hear my questions and ask these to themselves. More thoughtful, more insightful. More enjoyable!


One of the quotes that I refer to most often in my work is from Susan Scott and her book Fierce Conversations, where she says "Let the silence do the heavy lifting". Use this in session design, in coaching, even in speaking engagements. Don't feel you need to fill the space - the people you're working with are more than capable of doing that for themselves.


Where could you make better use of silence? Where are you saying too much or doing too much of the heavy lifting? Give the people you're working with space and trust them to find their path.

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