White Space vs. Negative Space in Coaching

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free… Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.  - Michelangelo

In design, white space and negative space are often used interchangeably. I differentiate the two in both design and coaching.

White space originated in the printing world referring to the unmarked part of the (white) paper. Margins, gutters, the space between paragraphs and lines of type, or even the space between individual letters (kerning) are considered white space. In design, white space increases readability.

In conversational coaching - conversation with intent - white space would be the equivalent of the pauses in the conversation, the time between transmit and receive, and receive and response, or the space between topics and issues. In coaching, white space increases clarity.

Without white space, in print or conversation, everything would run together with no discernible separation - no point of focus.

If you prefer musical analogies, white space is the space between musical notes.

We tend to take white space for granted. In design, space is high value real-estate. Yet when we fill the entire space with content our message gets lost. There is no place for the eye to rest, no indication of where to focus.

In coaching conversation the same is true. When we don’t create space, when we stack questions, or don’t provide time for contemplation we lose the opportunity to focus on what is important. Without space the coaching conversation is reduced to casual conversation.

In design and coaching white space forms the ascetic of our relationship to the content.

Negative space may start as whitespace but it has a vastly more powerful role. Negative space comes from the art world and is often defined as the space around or between the subject. Emptiness in a painting or photograph, and the voids of a 3-dimensional sculpture are examples of negative space in art. The power of negative space over white space is not in the absence of mark or substance, but in the ability to take form itself. The space around the subject becomes itself the subject.

One of the best known examples of this is Rubin’s Vase, where the vase-subject is formed by the negative space of opposing silhouetted faces - also subjects. (30 brilliant examples of negative space can be found here)  

In music an interval of silence is notated as a rest. John Cage took this to the extreme in his conceptual piece 4'33”

In coaching sessions we can find negative space in the long, often uncomfortable, silences in the conversation.

In coaching, negative space (silence) is not void of subject or content. It is expansive with activity. Negative space is where deep understanding, realization, and processing take place. It is where new knowledge comes to surface and limiting beliefs are transcended. This space comes to form, not the brief moments of white space, but from a cumulation of moments built over time. This is the space, not between questions, but the spaces between conversations. Here is where the ah-ah moments come to light. It is the singing in the shower that becomes the crystal clear solution to the problem we have been struggling through. It is where we simultaneously see both the vase and the faces. Negative space is the space of possibility - where form is created from the formless. It is where shift happens.

In conversation, just as in design, we must resist the urge to fill the entire space. Allow for a place to rest and let form emerge.

A tool used by the coach to expand space is the powerful question. Powerful questions can be used like a sculptors chisel to remove unwanted mater, creating form from space. When we ask a powerful question and step back, allowing the question to do the work, we create the space for new forms to appear. 

Negative space is as full as the marks in positive space. It only requires deep observation to discover the power of within the void. What do you see? What do you hear? What is coming forth from the void?

- why I coach


I will be sharing more about Powerful Questions at Mile High Agile, happening May 22-23 in downtown Denver. If you would like a special Friends of Speakers discount code to get $50 off registration use this link.

What’s in your coaching tool kit?

What’s in your coaching tool kit?

Once you get past the metaphorical answers; depending on the type of coach you ask you will get a common set of answers. A sports coach generally has a whistle, stopwatch, athletic tape, and a few sport specific items. A life coach may have some assessment forms. Most Agile coaches immediately reach for their stickies & markers (does anyone still call them Post-Its?).

I often hear the answer, The quintessential list of 500 Powerful Questions, but none could pull this out of their briefcase when asked. Although I have assembled a list shy of 100 questions, I don’t cary mine with me either.

Having the right tool for the job is essential. Improvisation and necessity may get the job done, but … 

If you don’t have a personal coaching tool kit I strongly encourage you to start assembling one. Start with one or two simple familiar tools. Build your collection over time. 

What do I cary in my tool kit?

My tool kit fits into a sandwich size ziplock and is as versatile as a Swiss Army knife.

  • First, money talks, so I cary $1,000,000 in assorted (play) currency. Can you put a $ value on…? 
  • I have several card decks:
    • A deck of 12 story cards from the Human Side of Tech This is my mini version of powerful questions.
    • A couple decks of Moving Motivators, Delegation Poker, and a deck of Improv cards from Management 3.0  Each of these have multiple uses with individuals and/or teams.
  • My go to manipulative, as a Lego Serious Play facilitator, is an LSP window kit (ask, build, tell, reflect). This is the best tool I have found for getting traction with complex problems. What is your superpower?

I cary all of this in a Quart size ziplock in my briefcase.

Here is the important catch. If you are going to cary a tool, be sure you know how and when to use it. I cary these physical tools with me. BUT, just because I have them does not mean I always use them. In any coaching situation I first and foremost rely on my skills, and years of training and experience. I don’t let my tool kit become a crutch or a premature shortcut. I reach for these tools only when they are the right tools to help my client move forward.

What’s in your tool kit (and how do you use it)?