The Power of “I Don’t Know” in Coaching

  • The Power of “I Don’t Know” in Coaching

    where-the-magic-happensFor some of us, not having the answers is really scary. After all, we got where we are today by being smart, decisive, and knowledgeable and having the answers is often tied to our value as people——yet it can also be a trap, especially in the coaching arena. In fact, not knowing the answers can be a powerful, open place to be for both coach and client. As one of our coach training students recently said, “It’s like Star Trek… We’re going where we’ve never been before.


    As coaching is being increasingly defined and separated from consulting, we are also becoming clearer about what makes for powerful and transformative experiences for our clients. Unlike consulting where answers are expected, in the role of coach, once we even think we have the answer to our client’s problem, it’s over. There’s no longer a need to be curious because we’ve “got it”, our agenda is set and the task at hand is to get the client to go where we think they should go. All of our questions and statements from thereon out are tailored to lead them toward what we believe is the right direction. This creates a transactional advice-giving engagement that is often mistaken for the craft of coaching but that does not support our clients’ long term change, nor an integration of change throughout the system they reside in. This means that if we’re going to coach—and be useful in that role—we must manage the parts of us that jump up and say, “I know” and instead let our curiosity lead the way. “I don’t have the answer” keeps us open and available to support the extraordinary process of our client’s transformation.


    When it comes to our clients, most of them will come to coaching sessions with stories to share about what’s happening and who did what to whom. They are stories of their issues, the people involved, and the ways in which they’ve been affected, and reciting these stories rarely reveals new information for our clients. They know these stories well, the familiar combination of data, conjecture and assumption that makes up a tale having been cycled through their minds for quite a while, and perhaps even shared with friends and family. The interesting thing is that (whether our clients know it or not) we are sought by them, not as an ear to bend or a sounding board for the old familiar stuff, but rather to bring something different to the table, to intervene in what hasn’t been working, and to interrupt the cycles that have trapped them. However, we can’t offer this to our clients if we join them in the thinking that created their issues in the first place—so we must invite an exploration that goes beyond their story and into unfamiliar territory.


    Unfamiliar territory could be a new perspective, a powerful question, a request, or some feedback that they may never otherwise have been faced with. I could be something as simple as an invitation to be present with what exists in the moment. After all, stories are about the past and the future, not the present, yet the now moment is where change occurs. A question or statement from a coach that evokes an “I don’t know” in the client may be uncomfortable for them at first, but it is a great place to be. It can bring them to the edge of possibility and into something yet before undiscovered about themselves and the world.


    Let’s all drop the need to know the answers and become more like those Star Trek explorers with their continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.


    Here’s to your success!


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