Ever get a question in a situation you didn’t expect that catches you completely off guard? It happened to me this past week when a new acquaintance asked one of the more challenging questions about coaching.

“How do you know your coaching is working?”

I get that question a lot, though with different phrasing: “What’s the ROI on coaching?” Or, “Is it worth my time?” Or, “When will I see results?”

The answers: “It depends.” And, “It depends.” And, “It depends.” All of which are often unsatisfying to those who ask.

Coaching is a long-term effort to improve, which happens incrementally, sometimes in dramatic spurts and sometimes in small steps. For those who want to invest in it, there are often great rewards. Others who might be less willing to engage can be disappointed. Hence the “it depends” response.

My friend pushed me further. “No, I mean, at the moment.”

Silence… then the knowing laughter of self-awareness.

Michael Bungay Stanier once wrote in his book, The Coaching Habit, to use silence in coaching. I realized that my response to this person at the party was the answer to their question.

In my coaching, I ask many questions. When a question provokes a pause – or silence – I immediately realize that I’ve hit on something that person needs to consider more deeply. At that point, my best course of action is to wait until the other person is ready to answer.

I call this out as many of you find yourselves in various coaching and mentoring roles. We’re so used to working on a deadline that we have developed a habit of jumping in anytime there’s a break in the discussion. We miss crucial opportunities to understand more deeply and connect. We’re ultimately less effective as friends, peers, leaders, coaches, and mentors.

Recognize the value of silence. It’s how you know it’s working, at the moment and in the long-term.