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Help! I Don't Know How to Coach an "I Don't Know"!

Few things in this world can stop a coaching session dead in its tracks and turn a coach into a bumbling mess (I know from experience) like a well placed...

"I don't know".

But these three words need not be the bane of coaching. Why? Because our job presupposes that our client does in fact know and has the answers they need to achieve their goals.

You just need to use the right techniques to unlock your clients knowledge.

This week CLCI Live takes a crack at coaching the "I don't knows" and haves a lively coaching session with Lisa Finck (A.C.C.), Brooke Adair Walters (M.C.P.C.), Anthony Lopez (M.C.L.C), and Kyle Rodriguez (M.C.L.C). where we try our hand at turning an obstruction into an opportunity and in the process show what to do and what not to do when confronted with this difficult statement.

If you are new to coaching this is a great opportunity to see examples of:

  • Marketing to people on the fence

  • Setting a session contract

  • Leading vs. open questions

  • Keeping silence

After watching this week's Live you'll be able to turn your "I don't know" into an "I do know"!

What is Beneath the "I don't Know"

IDK can come in many flavors and can arise for many different reasons. Being able to identify what kind of IDK you are dealing with is crucial in knowing what steps to take and what questions to ask or not ask.

When a client says "I don't know" do they mean...

  • I don't know if we are going the right direction or if that was the right question, can you ask me in a different way?

  • I actually don't know the answer or I'm ignorant., but I want to know how I can explore or find an answer.

  • I'm avoiding the question because it makes me uncomfortable. It's easier to say "I don't know".

  • I'm not sure or certain. I feel a certain way but can't confirm anything definite.

Part of the ICF Core Competencies involves active listening and recognizing when there is more to what a client is communicating.

Now you as a coach might assume that the client is actually communicating some of the above examples, but why assume when your client is sitting across from you? They can literally tell you themselves, but all it takes is some patience and exploration to get to the bottom of an "I don't know".

When a client hits you with an IDK, flashing red lights and alarms should be ringing in your head saying "THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY, DON'T LET THIS GO TO WASTE"!

Wait, I DO KNOW!

Here are some ways to bring about the awareness that the client really does know the answer to a question.

Set the Session Contract

Setting the session contract is often one of the shortest but most important parts of a coaching session. If you were to follow the GO LEARN model for a session, setting the contract for what the client wants to accomplish is only 4 minutes or 6.7% of an entire hour.

That's not a whole lot of time and so it becomes important to plainly and clearly ask your client...

"What do you want to work on today?"

"What can we do in our session to accomplish X, Y, Z?"

"How will we know what success looks like?"

Really nailing these questions down will probably take longer than 4 minutes at first, especially if a client doesn't know the answer or if it's early in the coaching relationship, but once the layout is ironed out you will find that future coaching sessions will go a lot smoother and won't get off track or run into as many obstacles.

So what if IDK pops up inside the session contract?

Silence is Golden

Something many coaches struggle with (author included) is identifying when to shut the heck up. You may be the equivalent of an automatic rifle loaded with questions aimed right at your client, but countering an IDK with a barrage of questions might be the wrong approach.

This may be difficult to do but when a client responds to a brilliant, open ended question with IDK. Just respond with...


No response, just simply fold your hands together and wait. Patiently.

It's no secret that silence is actually a powerful communication tool and in the case of coaching, you are effectively saying "I know there is more info, I'll wait and let you collect your thoughts".

"So what do you know?"

Ignorance has no positive existence in the real world. Like darkness, it only exists in the gaps of the light and what can be experienced.

Sometimes when a client doesn't know something it is difficult to describe what that actually is, because they don't know what it is they don't know.

The best way to give shape to this absence of knowledge is by asking the client to construct what it is they actually know. By asking them what they are sure of, the client will begin to see where the fuzzy edges of their understanding are and can then properly explain how to move forward.

"How could/would you know?"

Regardless of whether we think our client is being obstinate or unhelpful, this powerful question gives your client the benefit of the doubt and encourages them to think of a solution to a problem.

This type of question is especially useful if the client is in a rut in the beginning of a session where they may be unclear on their goals or how to approach them. Add in a dash of silence to let them think and they will be talking in no time.

It's Okay not to Know

Not every answer can or will be discovered in a session. Perhaps a client's entire goal is to discover what it is they truly want and they've been in a constant state of not really knowing.

There is no rush and perhaps setting the issue aside for a session or two can let the client grow comfortable with opening up and sharing what they know. If the client seems firmly set on not answering a question, maybe it's a good idea to take a step back and evaluate if you are truly trying to open their awareness, or merely trying to satiate your own curiosity.

If there is one easy rule to follow, it's don't poke the bear. It's okay for you not to know as much as it is for the client. Just give it time.


Announcement! CLCI is Now introducing Digital Badging!

We are excited to officially announce to the world that CLCI is now utilizing Credly to offer our students and alumni digital badges when they become Certified Professional Life Coaches (CLC/CPC) and Master Certified Life Coaches (MCLC/MCPC).

On July 21st, 2021 we will begin issuing all students and alumni these digital badges when they graduate from our programs, in addition to printable certificates.

What makes these digital badges special?

These aren't your old fashioned certificates. These badges are:

  • Shareable: Meaning you can easily post them on Indeed, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Or place them in an email signature or embed them on your website!

  • Verifiable: Each badge issued is uniquely linked to data hosted on the Credly platform and makes them more reliable and secure than a paper-certificate. No one except you can claim your credential and your associated identity.

  • Data Rich: Badges provide clients, peers, and family/friends concrete evidence of what you had to do to earn your certificate and what you’re now capable of.

Be sure to keep an eye out for emails from Credly or Certified Life Coach Institute in the future for more information.

For More Info on Digital Badging


Thank you,

Lisa Finck, Brooke Adair Walters, Kyle Rodriguez, and Anthony Lopez

Join us every Tuesday at 4 pm PST/7 PM EST for our CLCI Live Facebook Demos.

We now stream from our site! Watch by clicking here

We also now stream live on YouTube! Subscribe to our channel and don't miss out!

Don't miss out on our 3-day life coach classes, it's an education that is beneficial for life, not just for life coaches! Want to learn more click here.

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