What if the coachee says ‘I don’t know’

There comes a point at least once in a coaching conversation, where the coach feels instinctively that the issue is clear enough to pose a powerful question – one that will really make the coachee think and open up new perspectives. Many times, that is exactly what happens, but occasionally the coachee simply responds with “I don’t know”. For the coach, this can be very frustrating and it is easy to form the view that the coachee is just being obstructive. However, the “I don’t know” response can be one of the most powerful triggers for helping the coachee achieve self-insight.

There are several reasons for “I don’t know” and each of them needs a different response. The coachee may mean:

  • “I genuinely don’t know, but I am curious to explore the issue further”
  • “I don’t want to think about this – it’s too painful or too difficult”
  • “I don’t know, but I have a strong perception”
  • “I don’t think (or feel) that is the right question” (So can we work on what the right question would be?)

The first step in moving the conversation on is to demonstrate interest in their state on not knowing. You might, for example, describe the four meanings above and ask: “Which of these kinds of not knowing do you feel we dealing with here?” Expressing the question in terms of feelings is important, because it distances the conversation from any hint of judgement or criticism of their thinking. It also helps to say: “Don’t respond immediately. Take a few moments to reflect.”

In the first situation, where they genuinely don’t know, but are curious, you can help them focus first on what they do know. A simple technique is to draw a jigsaw puzzle, with blank pieces. Invite them to label pieces, starting either at the edges or in the middle, with relevant things they do know. Now you can together, using a different color pen, identify all the relevant things they don’t know and explore how they could find out.

In the second situation, which is basically one of avoidance, start by acknowledging – and hence validating — their pain. Then gently prompt them to explore:

  • What is it about this question or issue that makes it so painful?
  • What kind of pain is this?
  • Where do you feel this pain?

If you meet continued resistance, be careful! You may be on the edge of a deep-seated psychological trauma or personality disorder, which is outside the scope of coaching. Give them space and gently enquire whether they feel ready to tackle this issue? If not – and particularly if the same issue recurs at other points in the coaching conversations, consider broaching the subject of whether they would like you to refer them on to a therapist.

Many times, however, the coachee will feel able (and relieved) to discuss the issue, because they now have a structure for doing so. It can be a bit like getting into a cool swimming pool. It is uncomfortable getting in, but you every soon acclimatise.

In the third situation, where the coachee distinguishes between what they truly know and what they perceive, they have already started the hardest part of the process. Useful questions include:

  • What created your assumptions about this?
  • What do you want to know about this and what would you rather not know?
  • How could you test your assumptions?
  • How would other people, whose opinions you value, see this?

In the fourth situation, you have again been given a good starting point for further exploration. You might use techniques such as:

  • Reversing the question (e.g. From What do you want? to What do you not want?)
  • Adding and subtracting words to test the impact of different questions
  • Changing the emphasis of the words
  • Ask the coachee to select one of Who? Where? When? Which? What? Why? How? Then a verb such as can, be, have, want, wish, will and so on.  Then some nouns (peace, fulfillment, love, contentment, promotion and so on) and finally some adjectives or other descriptive phrases (e.g. happy, successful, in control). Now play with these until they have a question that is truly meaningful for them. You might set them the homework of refining the question to make it even more meaningful.

Coaches report that working effectively with not knowing contributes to building trust within the relationship – not least because it shows the coachee that they (not the coach) are in charge of their internal reflections.

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