One leader was peer-coaching another leader. Each came from a different company. Let’s call them Johan (coach) and Christina (coachee). Christina had an important challenge to put on the table. She had a direct report (I’ll call him 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 he continued with, “I mean, is Harry looking more tired? Or, is he getting overly emotional? Or, does he act depressed, or something?”
Instead of answering the initial, open question from Johan, Christina found herself reacting to Johan’s (limited) menu of options that had followed.
I was in the room because Johan and Christina were participants in a 9-month program JJC offers called 'Coaching is an Art', which focuses on bringing leadership to the next level by developing coaching skills.
We had quite the debrief discussion about that particular moment, afterward.
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 his question actually quite clever.
- This insightful thought process was interrupted by Johan’s following (closed) questions, which 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.”
Coaches, when you ask an authentic, open, and thought-provoking question, and it is followed by silence – YOU’RE ON A ROLL!
One could even hypothesize that there is a positive correlation between:
- The shorter the post-question silence, the less thought-provoking the question
- The longer the post-question silence, the more thought-provoking the question
Coaches, 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, let your question land with your coachee, sit there in (extended, and hopefully relaxed) silence, and watch those sparks fly!