"I don't know"
By Vicki Escudé, MA, MCC
Recently a coach trainee asked the question: “What does a coach do when she hears, ‘I don’t know’ after asking the client to reflect more deeply about an issue?”
First, let’s consider the coach’s reaction when hearing “I don’t know.” Reactions could range from fear to confusion to “yeah – that’s a great place to be!” Does the coach hold the belief that “I don’t know” means the client expects the coach to come up with an answer? If so, the coach might be tempted to put on the consulting hat, and move out of coaching mode. Another response to that belief could be to struggle for another powerful question, trying to force forward movement in the client. Either tack takes the coach out of the present moment with the client.
Reflect on times when you say, “I don’t know.” What does that phrase mean to you? Perhaps it is merely a way to stop for a moment and reflect. Perhaps it is another way of saying, “I’m thinking.” If it is simply a placeholder as you step back into a moment of silence while you buy some time, then you don’t require an immediate answer. If the coach jumps in too quickly without honoring the space of the client, he/she could be robbing the client of reflective time.
Mastery in coaching asks for no attachment to an outcome, so allowing the client to explore that space of “I don’t know” keeps the coach present and connected, rather than concerned with “what’s next.” Using metaphor, we might consider “I don’t know” as a closed door. It is the client who must find the door knob, turn it, and push the door open. Imagine the new vistas and surprises possible on the other side! It has been said that “I don’t know” is a very high state – the brink of a breakthrough. By honoring this process, the coach does not press for an answer, but keeps an objective stance while being present and open.
“I don’t know” can be a point of opportunity for the client when he feels the unconditional support of the coach. When a coach can see that statement as an indication that a crossroads has been reached, it is then possible to be excited with the client. As coaches, our antennae can go up in anticipation of an energy shift, or a shift in focus in the client. This may be the perfectly poised moment before a willingness to move to a deeper level of awareness. A simple strategy is to ask the client, “What would be helpful to you?” Other coaching strategies such as visioning, metaphor, reframing, connecting with values or purpose, or revisiting original goals, support the client to move beyond being stuck to “ah-ha!”
If fear or confusion comes up for the coach when she hears the phrase, “I don’t know,” the coach will miss subtle cues because the focus is on her own performance. Reframing “I don’t know” to be a priceless opportunity turns the spotlight back onto the client.
Vicki Escudé, MA, MCC is owner of Executive Leadership Coaching, LLC. She trains and mentors coaches for ICF accredited training programs, as well as providing executive coaching services and leadership coaching seminars for corporations and organizations. Vicki has been very active in the ICF for the past 14 years, serving on many committees, and is presently an Assessor and on the Ethics Committee. She served on the ICF Board of Directors for 3 years. www.excellentcoach.com, Vicki@excellentcoach.com