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I hope you are keeping well and that your coaching practice is flourishing as we approach the end of the year.

In the last two weeks I have been asked twice by mentor coaching groups I have been working with, how coaches should respond when a client answers one of our questions with “I don’t know!”

Whenever I am asked this, I am immediately reminded of the response of a coach I worked with some years ago. She would look her client straight in the eye and say: “If you did know, what would your answer be?” And if the client said: “But I don’t know”, she would continue to look them in the eye and say: “Yes, but if you did know, what would your answer be?” And then there would be some silence…

Now, before you go off and try this, there are a few caveats here! She could carry this off; most of us can’t! If you want to try it, I suggest you make sure of three things: firstly, ensure that the trust and safety levels between you and your client are high and that the relationship can sustain this level of challenge; secondly, when you look them in the eye, don’t stare – make it a gentle gaze; and, finally, ensure your tone isn’t interrogative – make that gentle but firm as well.

The point to remember is that this type of answer is an opportunity.

A few years ago, I had a wonderfully introverted client who, more often than not, answered my questions in the first two sessions with an “I don’t know!” Acting intuitively, I asked her if I could share an observation with her and that I was curious as to what she might think of it. She was open to my sharing and so I reflected to her that she had said she didn’t know the answers to many of my questions and asked if she was aware of this pattern. She said she wasn’t, and I asked her whether she thought it might have anything to do with her introversion (which was part of the topic we were discussing that day). Not unexpectedly, she responded that she didn’t know – and laughed as she caught herself! I then asked her if she would be prepared to explore this possibility and she agreed. The long and the short of it is that we discovered that it was her way of protecting herself from a whole lot of things introverts (and I am one) fear: small talk, not knowing the answer, having the wrong answer, being outdone by others etc. We were on our way…and she offered not to respond to any of my questions with “I don’t know!”

So, there might be an underlying, even subconscious, reason our clients have for saying “I don’t know” and it is often worth exploring.

Something else you might try is to chunk the question down. There is inevitably stuff that the client does know about the subject of the question, so start there. “What are the things you do know about (this subject)?

A variation of the “I don’t know” response is “I’ll need to think about that”, meaning “I’d like to think about that after the session” (which we often know is unlikely unless they agree to that as an action). That’s probably the time to remind our clients that our sessions provide just that kind of thinking space, and would they like to use this time to do so.

So, here’s the thing: I don’t know what you are going to do when your client says they don’t know the answer to your question, but I do hope that this newsletter has given you some food for thought.

I am sure many of you have your own stories to tell about how you have struggled or dealt with the “I don’t know” response. I would love to hear them so please email them to me at

Until next time!
Best wishes


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