Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wrestling with “I Don’t Know”

Posted on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 by International Coach Federation

There you are – you’ve asked what you think is a great, insightful question. You sit back in your coaching chair, looking forward to hearing what your client has to say, and then comes the response: “I don’t know.”

I doubt there is a coach anywhere who hasn’t at some point been faced with a client’s blank stare and the words “I don’t know” in response to a challenging question.  (Of course, if you’re asking powerful questions, you probably should face a few “I don’t knows” once in a while!)

So, what do you say in that kind of situation? Often, the client is just temporarily stuck and unable to get past a self-judgment. Sometimes, it just takes a completely different question or simply phrasing the question in a slightly different way to help your client find a solution or to begin to work through the problem.

Here are a few possible answers and techniques to the “I don’t know” response that have proven helpful over the years.
  • “Who does know?”  (Most of the time, the client will smile, laugh, and say “I guess I do.”)
  • “How could you find out?”
  • “Let me challenge that ... do you really not know?” (said with a smile)
  • “Something is telling me you really do know – maybe the answer is just not bubbling up for you right now. How could you get at that answer that lies deep inside?”
  • “Maybe you don’t know [that specific point], but what do you know that’s related to that situation?”
  • “If you don’t know, who else do you know who might?”
  • “If your [father, mother, boss, colleague, daughter, et al] were here, what would they say?”
  • “If the wisest person you know were here with us right now, how would that person respond?”
  • Repeat the question again.
  • Remain silent.
Which ones of these have you tried? What were the outcomes? What other techniques or questions have you used with success? Please share below and help us build each other’s coaching tool chests!
Brenda Bence

Brenda Bence is an experienced senior executive coach, dynamic trainer and speaker, internationally-recognized branding expert, and author of four award-winning corporate and personal branding books.

With an MBA from Harvard Business School, Brenda spent the first 20 years of her career building mega brands for Fortune 100 companies, where she was a senior executive responsible for billion-dollar businesses across four continents and 50 countries.

In 2002, Brenda left the corporate world and founded BDA International. Now, with clients that span the globe and with offices in both the U.S. and Asia, Brenda travels the world speaking, training, and coaching individuals, entrepreneurs, and corporations to greater success through creative yet practical brand development.


  1. My favourite next question to the "I don't know" response comes from (if I recall correctly), Peter Block, and it is: if you did know, what would it be?

    Marcia Dorfman, MSOD, CPCC, PCC
    Leadership & Life Coach
    Kingston, Ontario, Canada

  2. My favorıte is " who does know?" then" Let's invite him here and ask this question?"

  3. A good one, Marcia – thanks for sharing! Brenda

  4. Mehmet: Interesting… the “let’s invite him here” is a nice approach. Thanks! Brenda


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.