The Secret to Coaching through the “I Don’t Know” Answer.

Coaching "I Don't Know"One of the hardest statements that a client hands to a coach is the one that starts “I don’t” and ends with “know.”  What should a coach say in order to continue moving the client forward? Your client has just told you that they don’t have an answer. What does that really mean?

I once heard a trainer tell me to ask, “If you did know, how would you answer?”  That’s clever, but blatantly calls your client a liar. How will you get your client to the point of answering without taking such a condescending approach?

I’ve had the honor recently of working with some excellent student coaches at Ultimate Coach University.  As they are finishing their training program, we take apart real coaching calls that they’ve had. With their client’s permission, the session is recorded and then the student coach and I discuss that session using a framework of the International Coaching Federation core competencies.

The “I don’t know” shows up at least once in every coaching call. Here are some approaches that I’ve heard used to great effectiveness:

Don’t Say anything.  Shut up.  The coach’s tendency is to rush in to fill the silence; to ask a new question or a rephrased one.  Sometimes when the client says “I don’t know” what it really means is that they haven’t asked or answered that question before.  When the coach rushes in, they are interrupting the client’s thoughts and the answer that is being formulated.  Deepak Chopra once observed that the space between thoughts is the place where insight can make itself known. When the coach hold a little bit of silence, wonderful thoughts start to appear.

Take smaller coaching bites.  Karen Bejjani from J. Hilburn has a great question that I’ve heard her use in classes and while coaching.  Her question is “Would you like to unpack what’s in that statement?” Her question treats the client as capable of answering.

“Talk to me” Questions. These questions just ask the client to talk and see what pops up.  It’s common for clients to discover their answer while they are talking.

When a client says that scary phrase, “I don’t know.” It seldom means that.

  • They may just have not put it into a sentence before.
  • They may have many thoughts and haven’t decided where to begin.
  • They may have a fear of saying their answer.

Your coaching task is to hold a space where the client is comfortable in providing an answer.

Thank you for reading about coaching clients through a tough answer.  If you like this, feel free to share it.  We’d love to have you comment with your thoughts.