The Deafening Sound of Silence

The following article from Coach Reed is an excerpt from his free eBook: "The Untapped Power of Silence in Coaching." Get the free eBook here.

I used to drive my daughter to school every morning. She was a freshman at a private school in Cincinnati and we lived between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes from it, depending on traffic and weather.

She was at one of the best schools in the country, but the downside was it made for very early mornings and long drives. This was a sacrifice we were willing to endure.

Drives are cathartic for me. I use the time to unwind or to re-energize. On particularly long rides, I will turn off the radio and drive in silence, allowing my mind to work a bit. I use rides for inspiration. The year I drove my daughter I was doing a lot of marketing and growth hacking for a startup as well as running a 60 team silo for a soccer club. I needed those long rides to stoke my creativity and to process out of me all the stress that comes from the role of Director of Coaching.

I failed to mention to my daughter that I use long car rides for cathartic and creative reasons. She is very much like my wife and other two children. They enjoy a good conversation and like to process their stress out loud. She was looking forward to all those long rides so she could bond with me and she knew I could help her navigate freshman year at a large, private, challenging school. She needed conversation on her rides and I craved silence...both for the same reasons.

Of course the first half of the year went as expected. I would ride in near total silence while my daughter would sit and chat with me the entire time. The conversations were very one-sided for both of us. I was the only one using the silence as a device and she was the only one using the conversation as a device. We were both confused by the other’s lack of engagement in our particular method of “dealing with it”.

By mid-year she stopped talking. She would hop in the car, tip tap on her phone for a few minutes and then fall sound asleep. She would sleep sitting bolt upright, with her head rocking to the rhythm of the car, the entire ride to school. At first it was hilarious for me. On the bumpy parts of the ride she would mimic the movements of the best mosh pitters at a head-banging rock concert. On stops and starts she would sway to and fro, and once in a while she would bend her neck too far to one side and pop wide awake. I would laugh quietly the entire ride. Her Wayne’s World Car Scene impression was as cathartic as the silence.

Then I began to miss her talking. I began to wonder why she stopped and that wonder turned to worry. Was she struggling more than she let on to us? Was she dealing with some inner demons we needed to help her address? Did she no longer want to talk to her daddy?
She is a daddy’s girl. Has been since the day we met. She spread whipped cream all over my condo and stole rocks and quarters from the various candle gardens and my change jar the first time I met her. She left an indelible mark on my heart from the very beginning and has been “my daughter” since that first day I met her. I adopted her soon into our marriage, not because I had to, but because I wanted her to know she was my daughter.

To go from my daughter thinking I hung the moon to choosing sleep over me in our car rides was heart-breaking. Her silence was enough to tell me how she felt about me. So for about a month the sadness, then anger, then angst built up in me. I could take it no more and had a talk with my wife about our rides. I needed to know what went wrong. Was she in need of help? Was she angry for something I did? Or was this what all dads of teenage girls had to handle?

Upon informing my wife of my concerns, she immediately smiled. “I think you need to talk to her on the next car ride. Actually open your mouth and talk so you can hear the answer for yourself.” I would have a “talk” with my daughter the next morning. That was a moment when I realized no matter how old or mature a person is, silence can be a lethal weapon.

My daughter had confided in my wife that she thought I was mad at her as well. My daughter was trying to figure out what she did wrong because I never spoke to her when we drove to school. She said she would talk away, even about things I cared for, in the hopes she could draw me verbally into the conversation. All she ever got were a series of grunts, acknowledgments and the occasional word.

She was convinced I had stopped liking her. She thought it was the amount of money we were spending on her school or the painfully long drives in bad traffic and bad weather. She thought maybe her talking too much had finally made me decide I couldn’t bear another drive with her (this is a very real fear for introverted people). For the sake of her own self-confidence, she chose to sleep on the rides rather than talk with me and face potential rejection.

Here I was enjoying these special moments with my daughter. Watching her grow up to be a woman 1 hour and 15 minutes at a time each morning, thinking life couldn’t get much better than having your teenager still talk to you!

What I did not know was my silence was the cause of all our stress. Silence is a needed tool for an introvert like me. I need the silence and use it to “heal”.

For her, my silence was a weapon. Of course, the moment she went silent, it became a weapon to me as well. I drew conclusions from her sudden silence, and we both dropped into the doldrums without a nasty word ever being spoken between us. Silence was the root of it all.

Of course, we worked things out and realized the balance we needed. She carries most conversations with me and I provide plenty of words here and there to keep the conversation going. She knows my silence is my way of engaging in the conversation. If I am silent, I am processing, listening intently, enjoying these special moments with my child.

When I speak I answer, probe for more information, or provide positive feedback for her. I know her need to talk to me is her way of saying she still needs me as a dad. She knows my silence means I am figuring out how to help her and loving every minute of it. Now the silence is the thread of our relationship.

Silence has a tremendous power as a form of communication, but many times it can be interpreted as a weapon instead of a useful tool. As the aforementioned story reveals, silence can shatter relationships if used incorrectly. For my daughter, during the difficult and challenging teen years she needed a dad to listen but also to talk. She needed me to help her solve problems, to reassure her life is going in the right direction, to show her I still loved her.

My silence drove a wedge between us and also began to damage her own self-confidence. Without my verbal support, she was struggling to navigate treacherous seas on her own. She needed at least a few words from me to empower her, encourage her, and elevate her. As a father I now see that my silence, because it was not explained, not supported with expectations, and at least some discussion once in a while, was a very dangerous method of communication. Silence is difficult as a stand alone communication device. It needs support from primary and secondary communication channels to convey the correct underlying meaning. This is why it is so treacherous, yet important, in the educational/coaching environment. Great communicators know the power of silence.

Our players are in the same boat, on the same seas, as my daughter. They are trying to find their way in a sometimes dangerous, always challenging world, and we are one of the lighthouses that keeps them from the rocks. Parents, teachers, coaches, loved ones all help guide children through these waters. When we are communicating properly with children, our beacon can be seen for miles, through all kinds of dense weather, but silence is akin to that lighthouse turning off its light.

We show them no path with our silence. We give them no reassurance they are headed the right direction. We abandon them, alone in the dark on the seas with no sense of safety and hope. This sounds ominous, but these are children. It is our obligation to guide them.

Children of all ages need communication. This is our gift, as sentient beings, the art of communication. Children grow, learn and explore the wondrous world through communication.

High-performing children need high-performance communication because the stressors, the expectations, and the activity are quite strenuous. They need feedback. They need guidance. They need to be empowered to continue the journey. The journey includes failure, success, change. These factors require deliberate communication with coaches and mentors to ensure they continue on the correct path. It is their path to choose, but our duty to illuminate it.

As I state often, children need to be empowered to risk, they need to be encouraged to continue in their journey, and they need to be elevated with words above the mundane stress of the moment so they can see what it is they could become from all this. Our words have the ability to elevate them so they can see beyond this moment and envision the next moments.

As Ovid says “be patient and tough, someday this pain will be useful to you”.

I had a Latin teacher in High School who used to use this quote all the time in class. High School was not emotionally easy for me. It looked like it on the outside, but on the inside I was waging a nasty war with depression/anxiety. This quote helped serve as one of the many beacons sent out by the influential adults in my life. I stayed the course because adults reminded me I could make it and it would be worth it. I had that quote on a note card in my wallet for a very long time after High School. (I still have that card in one of my keepsake boxes.

Thanks, Mr. Marchall, for elevating me.

Imagine if he had never said that to me. Imagine if my soccer coach and mentor, Paul Rockwood had never said, “Reed, you have a gift and need to share it with the world”. Imagine if my club coach had never said “It’s okay. Mistakes happen. I still believe in you.”

Imagine feeling alone on those treacherous waters, searching for some kind of beacon to guide you. Not only to guide you, but to let you know it will all be okay. “This pain shall pass if you trust me. Follow me.” We all look for signs when we are on our path. The darker the path, the more we watch for bright signs to guide us. The harder the journey, the more signs we may need. Children in an environment of “development” (education, sport, any activity that requires skill acquisition through trial and error), need our support to continue on the path.

Your silence doesn’t help them stay the course.

On a more inane level, your silence, if used incorrectly, does not promote “development”. Children need feedback. They need to hear what is working and what is not, and they need to have specific information said to them to help them solve the puzzle of the game. When they look to you for that kind of guidance, you have to be ready to give it. Silence in the place of instruction, or feedback, or guidance is the death knell for development. Silence, then, can be deafening enough to drown all hope of acquisition. It is the flood that drowns the seeds of new growth.


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