When the client delivers those dreadful words.
One of the foundational principles of coaching is the confidence in the client’s own resourcefulness, competence, and ability to discover their own answers. In coaching, we come from the belief that the client is the authority in their own lives and situation. As coaches, we do not approach the coaching relationship as the subject matter expert. Instead, our expertise lies in our ability to establish a research-based conversational framework where the client can more deeply explore the issue at hand, broaden their perspective and in doing so, come to new insights that will further empower them to take their next step.
In other words, the client knows best. Our role as coaches is to engage with them in a partnership that will support them in this process of discovery, so they create their own forward movement.
So, if the client is the expert and the client has their own solutions, what happens when in a coaching session they simply say, “I don’t know?”
After working on thousands of coaching sessions with my own clients plus reviewing hundreds of recordings of my students and mentees, and assessing for the ICF, I have identified two possible reasons for this statement.
It Is Too Early
Coaching is a process of exploration. We coaches act as disruptors of the client’s way of thinking that provides them with the opportunity to break away and gain different perspectives. That is what is fascinating about this practice. Clients come to the coaching session with their own partial view of the situation and through our questions, observations, and silence, they are then able to widen their horizon and see for themselves what they could not see before.
However, we sometimes are so eager to bring the client to this new awareness that we end up asking questions they are not ready for. It is too early in the coaching conversation and we are already prompting the client to express ideas they have not been able to access yet.
In this case, “I don’t know”, should be a clear warning to the coach, that perhaps we have not explored the situation deep enough. There are perspectives that have not been explored. There are layers that have not been uncovered. And most likely, we are jumping into action way too early.
Here, the remedy is obvious. It is time for us to ground in our presence, deepen our listening and support the client in a more nuanced examination of the topic to empower them with more profound information that will enable them to know.
What are the words, expressions, and subtleties we overlooked? What is the true meaning behind what the client is saying or not saying? How can we become even more curious, let go of our assumptions, and allow ourselves to stay in this place of ‘not-knowing’ a little longer?
This state of curiosity and comfort with the discomfort can be just what the client needs from us, so they are able to answer those questions with clarity and truth.
But let’s say we did explore the situation quite enough. Insights are clearly available everywhere and still the client continues to shy away from embracing them. This reluctance may be a sign that the client is avoiding.
Coaching goes beyond transaction. What we are aiming for is an internal transformation that provides the client with a widened view, which can, in turn, propel them forward. We need to realize that at times, this can be intimidating.
As humans, we like what is familiar, even when it hurts. Sometimes we prefer to stay where it is uncomfortable rather than venture into the new. Taking a step into the unfamiliar is a very courageous act. It is amazing how ingenious we can be just so that we avoid seeing the obvious.
Client’s will resist. Perhaps refuse to commit. Their words will not match their actions. They even become very creative with their excuses.
In this case, it is imperative for the coach to listen even more closely. What does the client really need in this moment? Is it a compassionate attitude? Is it a challenge? Should we take a step back or must we poke the avoidance?
The answer on how to proceed will, of course, come from the client. Coaches are partners, not parents. We support, we mirror, we present, but ultimately the decision belongs to the client. The fact to consider here is that, in this case, the “I don’t know” is not a lack of information, but instead a lack of readiness from the client and other factors might be at play and in need of exploration.
And one more…
There is one more scenario we need to keep in mind. It may be that the “I don’t know” is in fact a lack of resources. There may be a piece of practical information missing in which neither the client nor the coach has access to during the session. In this case, the action is clear. Some simple research might just be the answer.
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As a mentor coach, I am always giving feedback to my students and mentees helping them develop their coaching skills and prepare for their certification with the ICF. ForCoaches is a place where I can publicly share some of my insights and experiences. What does it mean to be a truly effective coach?