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Silences, mindful presence and pausing for breath

Right on cue, Amanda Ridings, CSA graduate,  has sent in this piece.  I hope that you find it useful and that it might whet your appetite to read ‘Pause for Breath’ her recent, excellent book on dialogue .  Edna Murdoch


———————————————————————————————————————————————————  See how nature – trees, flowers, grass -grows in silence;

See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence

We need silence to be able to touch souls

Mother Theresa

Alongside my development as an executive coach (and more recently as a coach supervisor), I have been exploring two complementary disciplines. The first is the martial art of T’ai Chi Chuan, which begins as a physical practice and evolves to include training the mind and spirit. The second is the art of dialogue, or ‘thinking together’[i], an approach to conversations that begins with the mind but becomes an embodied experience as we bring our whole self into presence. In this article I offer a perspective on the links between dialogue and coaching supervision, with a little influence from martial arts.

There are many definitions of dialogue and the one I am exploring has its roots in the work of quantum physicist David Bohm[ii] who identified deep seated and habitual ‘pathologies of thought’ that limit collective intelligence and our ability to genuinely ‘think together’. The discipline of dialogue offers theories and practices that enable us to recognise and transcend unhelpful patterns of thought, at least for a moment! This feels relevant to our work as coach supervisors where, with a fellow coach, we seek to pool our resources in service to the coach-in-supervision and their client and client system.

One of the building blocks of dialogue is to distinguish between advocacy and inquiry in our habits of speech. Advocacy means speaking for a point of view, taking a stand. It has direction and clarity of purpose. It can feel certain – sometimes too certain! On the other hand, inquiry seeks to understand what we do not yet know, or to discover how another person perceives a situation. It is exploratory and open. It encompasses uncertainty and can feel vague. One definition of dialogue is a conversation in which advocacy and inquiry are in balance (Argyris). In the context of coaching supervision, we might ask what being ‘in balance’ means. My view is that, as coach supervisors we lean towards inquiry, with a sprinkling of advocacy, and this is what is required to balance the point of view, or advocacy, as the coach-in-supervision tells their story.

Advocacy and inquiry have equivalents in martial arts. The physical act of entering into a situation resonates with advocacy and is described as a triangular energy, like the bow of a boat cutting through water. The physical act of blending with an incoming energy resonates with inquiry and is described as a circular energy, receiving and joining. In martial arts, there is a third energy shape, the square, which represents a moment of ’emptiness’, of potential, where all things are possible before making a choice and taking action. Working with bringing dialogue practices, I began to wonder about the role of this third energy.

Then in early 2009, in a coaching supervision seminar, Edna Murdoch suggested that to ‘make silence’ is an option for intervention in coaching supervision. I quickly associated this with square energy, the moment of ‘pause’ or potential before we speak or take action. I saw that deliberately making silence is a powerful choice in purposeful conversations.

One of my personal inquiries in dialogue practice has been into the quality of silence. Silence is often experienced as uncomfortable, and tends to be quickly filled with a comment or a joke. I draw attention to this in my practice groups and invite inquiry into silence. How might we perceive silence differently? Personally I value silence, and when I coach or supervise, I calibrate the quality of my questions by the length of the silence that follows them. A conventional question will evoke a quick response – a recycled thought or ‘one I prepared earlier’. A probing question will evoke silence, in which a search is being made; a response will come slowly, perhaps hesitantly, as new awareness or insight is voiced for the first time.

In conversations, silence is often interpreted as assent, though the intent may more often be dissent or opposition. Silence can be tense, it can be relaxed, it can be accusatory, it can be potent and rich with wonder, it can be withdrawal. There is always a risk that silence, as an absence of talk, goes unnoticed, which is why the quality of our presence matters so much. Leaders tell me that when they speak less whilst in a centred, open and curious state, their silence is acknowledged by a remark, an inquiry or a change in energy as colleagues become more thoughtful. Silence can convey many qualities and can be eloquent – so how do we use silence skilfully in coaching supervision?

My sense of making a silence is that as a considered and skilful act, it is grounded in the practice of pausing and centring. This ensures that the quality of a silence is open and connected to others and so cannot be mistaken for agreement or disagreement. The intent of skilful silence is mindful presence: it creates the opportunity to experience things as they are, without preference. This supports both coach supervisor and the coach-In-supervision to be discerning in their choice of what to say next.

Energetically, making silence creates space for awareness, individually and collectively. This allows both coach supervisor and coach-in-supervision to reach for, and surface, deeper wisdom. Embodying skilful silence creates the potential for new insights to unfold. Making silence creates roominess and a space for truly listening to self and to others. It slows down a conversation, enabling thinking to emerge and interrupting any tendency to perpetually recycle habitual thoughts. Skilful silence creates the conditions for collective presence and this offers the potential for genuinely thinking together.

[i] Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs, Doubleday 1999

[ii] On Dialogue, David Bohm, Routledge 1996


Amanda Ridings  2011