Staying with the not-knowing

24 Sep 2015

When a therapist thinks that he can see signs of what is familiar to him, he can become blind to what is different and strange.” Patrick Casement, On Learning from the Patient

When I qualified as a therapist many years ago, before I was a coach, my first three clients didn’t come back after their initial sessions with me.  I was devastated and through supervision and self-reflection came to realise that I had frightened them off by being too clever, too urgent, too excited to diagnose their “problem” and to come up with my own solutions for them.

It was a hard lesson about the importance of staying with the not-knowing and one which I have never forgotten. Now I teach this lesson to all students on Barefoot Coach Training programmes.

Staying with the not-knowing means having a profound belief that the client knows himself better than anyone else knows him and that he probably also knows what is best for him if he is given the time and space to think about it.

For a coach, staying with the not-knowing means:

  • Tolerating ambiguity
  • Working hard not to make assumptions or interpretations
  • Leaving aside models and theories and what has worked for previous clients in apparently similar situations
  • Being open to learning and being open to being surprised by your client
  • Being self-aware enough to know your own personal and professional biases, preferences and prejudices and to learn to put them aside when in the presence of a client.

When a coach is comfortable with not being certain and can take a not-knowing stance, the power differences in the relationship between coach and client are minimised and the client stops relying on the coach’s expertise or advice and begins to think for himself.

I teach Barefoot Coaches to encourage their clients to find their own solutions, to be the opposite of 'all knowing', the opposite of experts or advisors or people who diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. That is what staying with the not-knowing means to me.