What to Do When Your Coaching Client Says “I Don’t Know”
How do you respond when your coaching client responds to your questions with “I don’t know?”
I was recently asked this question by one of my coach mentoring clients and in this post I am going to share how I was originally trained to respond, how I now respond to this, and how they are different.
First off, while it is totally ok to not know the answers to things there are also times when people can use ‘I don’t know’ as a cop out…
For example, when I am running training programs there are many times when I am asked questions about things I genuinely don’t know. I typically respond with “Let me do some research and get back to you on that.” When asked about things external to yourself it is okay not to know.
However when there is a question that is being asked about something that is internal to someone, for example you ask your coaching client what they want to achieve or what they believe…
…and their answer is “I don’t know”, many times it is an excuse to not think. They are avoiding doing the work of thinking it through to get an answer.
When I was first trained as a coach I was taught to respond to “I don’t know” with what we refer to as the “As-if frame”.
This is the frame of mind where you imagine “as if” something was true and generate an answer that way…
The specific question I was trained to ask was something along the lines of, “Imagine as if you did know. If you did know, what would the answer be?”
This is a great question to get someone to think outside of the box of “I don’t know” as this guides the client to imagine/ construct an answer to the question.
Currently I still invite my clients to construct the answer but I go about it a little differently…
The first thing I do is what we refer to as “a pacing statement.” A pacing statement is basically meeting someone where they are currently before leading them to somewhere different.
The pacing statement I typically make in this situation is “That is correct, you don’t know…”. This allows me to maintain rapport before I challenge them to generate a new answer.
Another frame I may set as a coach is…
“If I was asking you questions you already knew the answers to you wouldn’t be getting much out of this coaching session because you would just be telling me what you already know!”
After I pace them I invite them to go inside and construct an answer.
“That’s right, you don’t know…. yet. And so I invite you to go inside, take a moment to think about it, and let me know when you have an answer.”
To me, ‘I don’t know’ means ‘I don’t know yet’ and this way of thinking allows you, as a coach, to trust in your client’s own resourcefulness to create their own answers & generate their own solutions.
As a quick recap… when my client says “I don’t know” I let them know that means “I don’t know yet” and I invite them to go inside to find an answer and come back out to me when they’ve constructed an answer and share with me what they’ve created…
Whatever answer they generate is likely not going to be ‘perfect’ in the final sense of the word but it will be good enough & definitely better than the blank space of unmapped territory that they had before thinking it through.
Having generated an answer for themselves, they will take much more ownership over it. Beyond just allowing them to construct their own answers, at a higher level, you are training them to do the work of ‘thinking’ for themselves which is one of the values of working with a coach.
Any questions, comments, or alternative responses? Feel free to comment below!