Not knowing…what to write about

This month, I had no idea of what to write about for this blog article. This is a common experience for me almost every month. Rather than write something I didn’t feel like writing, I waited for something to emerge from within me. This can feel uncomfortable and yet also exciting.

Not knowing what to write about and trusting that something will come to me has taught me a lot about the creation process, including turning down the volume on inner mental/emotional noise, and mostly trusting that something will be drawn out of me, by me. I’m pretty sure this process and feeling is one that every person who writes original work can relate to.  

Aha! What to write about!

And then the big aha came to me! I realized I wanted to write about this concept of ‘not knowing,’ which is a key coaching mindset of a Professional Coach.

Not knowing is written into the ICF Core Competencies, which are the mindset and skills of a Professionally trained Coach. In the ‘old’ Core Competency of “Creating Presence,” sub-point C says; “Is open to not knowing and takes risks.” In the updated Core Competency Model (widely released November 2019), “Maintains Presence,” sub-point 5 says; “Is comfortable working in a space of not knowing.”

This concept of not knowing is often misunderstood. What does it mean to not know, as a Professional Coach? How can you not know? Aren’t clients paying you for what you know?


Climbing the Grid of Bars

Before I give you thoughts on this, I’m going to work with a ‘metaphor’ which is meaningful to me. Metaphor is one of many powerful coaching skills/tools to engage in with clients, to go deeper into their way of viewing and experiencing their world.

A happy childhood memory has been with me again recently. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, the Murray Bridge Primary School in South Australia which I attended, had an outdoor playground area including a vertical grid of bars for kids to climb on. The closest image I could find is the cargo net wall photo which I’ve used with this article. But the size of the grid was much larger and made of steel bars.

It was one of my favorite places to play at lunch time. I’d climb to the top of the wall, and then climb back down. Then eventually, I started to innovate and create ways to get down to the ground. Sometimes I’d see if I could climb diagonally up or down. Sometimes I went horizontally across, and at different heights. I was always seeking new ways to climb all over that grid!

My favorite way became to hang upside down on one of the horizontal bars, then reach down to the set of bars below, and flip backward to the ground.

As I grew in confidence to flip upside down and backward, I went higher up the grid and would reach down two bars below me instead of one bar. Sometimes I couldn’t quite reach it, but almost. Then I’d flip myself down, catch the bar in my hands as I flipped backward, and land on my feet like a cat! Sometimes it felt more of a thud as the distance to the ground was quite far (for me as a kid).

I spent a lot of childhood school playground time flipping upside down to the ground from what seemed like quite a height as a child. It was something I could do on my own, as an introverted child, and with great enjoyment. I never seemed to tire of this.

There was always a teacher monitoring the playground, and in hindsight, my climbing to the top and flipping upside down must have been watched for safety purposes. Yet I never recall a teacher/monitor ever telling me to stop, or that I couldn’t do it. Rather, my sense is they watched my approach which was to methodically climb to the top, take my time to hang upside down, get my bearings and determine how far my hands had to reach to the second bar below. Then watch me flip backward in the air and land on my feet – time and time again.

From the vertical grid of bars….to coaching?

There was equipment for me to get to know in the playground. The vertical grid of bars was for climbing, and I climbed and climbed and climbed all over that grid!

As a Professional Coach, we learn our equipment which is a mindset, and a set of skills a professional coach uses, and embodies. After mastering the basic coaching skills, we continue to master our coaching skills to a higher skill level, which allows us to better serve our coaching clients.

ICF provides a path of mindset and coaching skills development which is from beginner credential (ACC) to proficient (PCC) to master (MCC) coach. Many coaches stop at ACC or PCC, and never upgrade their skills. Yet there is a whole other level of proficiency and mastery to engage with that they never become equipped with.

What is Known to Coaches?

Beside coaching skills training, we may also study other bodies of knowledge such as emotional intelligence, leadership approaches and competencies, life skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and so on. There’s also a plethora of assessments. Then there’s our real-life experiences including being a human being living a life, in the culture/s we grow up in and move to, as well as work experience, play, and other life experiences we’ve had or are having.

This is the realm of the ‘known.’ All of this knowledge and expertise of a coach is their equipment. The mistake many coaches make is thinking their equipment is what the client needs to know and learn from them.

So here’s the tricky bit. Your client may want to know what you know, but the way it will make most sense to them, and support impactful and permanent outcomes is if they are able to find their own way across their grid of bars.

We can find almost any knowledge we want to know on the internet. Resources abound for being a better leader, person, parent, and so on.

What is Not Knowing as a Coach?

Coaching is impactful because it’s an approach which is customized based on being curious about the person we are coaching. We are open to not knowing and instead to learning how each person thinks, feels, acts and reacts. We listen and learn how they have overcome failure and disappointment, how they learn and develop their capacities, where they excel and where they stall, what’s important to them and why.

Back to the (updated) coaching competency mindset/skill of “Maintains Presence; Is comfortable working in a space of not knowing.” This doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. You need to know how to structure a client-driven coaching session, know the client context. There is a lot of knowing to engage with. And being a human being engaged in life, well, we all know a lot.

The comfort with working in a space of not knowing pertains to the client you are coaching. You don’t know about them and their capabilities, their beliefs and values, their culture and experiences which have shaped them. You don’t know how they are experiencing life from the inside of them. To assume that your external equipment and life experiences are what this person needs is short sighted. You don’t know what the real outcome and learning of the coaching will be for the client and you don’t know where the coaching process will take you and the client by the end of a session, or over the entire coaching engagement. 

Of course, there are other approaches which might be more suitable for showcasing your knowledge and life or business expertise. You need to clearly know the difference between coaching, consulting, teaching, mentoring and therapeutic modalities. Each has their place and purpose.

How do you ‘know’ more about your coaching client?

A beautiful difference from other modalities is a coaching mindset begins from the place of innocence, and truly not knowing about your coaching client. It’s not a cookie cutter approach where I know what you need in order to be successful based on the small amount I’ve heard or learned about you. It’s not trying to force your outcome on them because you think you know what’s best for them.

Coaching is a customized approach to learning about this unique person and being more deeply present and curious than you ever realize you can be.

Coaching skills are something to master, and there are many. These are life skills for anyone and everyone to learn. When coaching skills are used consciously by a Professional Coach, there is so much power available to the client to grow and develop themselves, and their confidence in their ability to problem solve for themselves.

One powerful coaching skill is the ability to craft a customized question using client-specific terms and language which are responsive to what the client is saying, and the ‘world’ they live in. My world in the playground was the vertical grid of bars, so asking questions about kicking a ball around the field is not going to be relatable to me.

You actually need to know a lot about coaching skills. Many people who attend coach training programs go in thinking they are good listeners, until they are specifically trained in Listening Skills, and the depth of what you can listen for. Time and again I’ve heard coaches I train or mentor say they thought they were great listeners, but now realize how limited their listening was. There’s a whole other world of listening available and one that takes years to master (and is never fully mastered from my experience, which is not knowing that excites me!).

Back to the vertical grid of bars

Once I mastered the basics of the grid of bars equipment in the playground, I innovated and created my own ways of using the equipment. I took my skill set to a higher level.

As I became more confident climbing on the grid, I found I could not only climb, but then flip backward to the ground. Then from greater heights, and reach down two grids at a time instead of one. I seem to recall I experimented with one hand off the bars, but that didn’t feel like it was a good idea. 😊

The ability to be allowed to experiment and discover for ourselves is a critical mindset a Professional Coach brings to their client. I’ve previously written about types of trust in the coaching process which include trusting your client and trusting that the coaching process works. 

To be comfortable working in a space of not knowing is so challenging for most of humanity as we are validated for what we know in school and how fast we can sprout forth knowledge.

To feel the discomfort (or excitement) of not knowing how a coaching session will unfold or the real outcomes and learning for the client, is a high state of coaching presence to embody.

As a coach, we need to know our equipment really well; that’s very important. Yet we are comfortable learning about each client and their view of their experiences at work and in life. At one time, I coached 450 people on communication skills in one company alone. I certainly had my equipment and knowledge and enormous experience around communicating across teams without direct authority, authentic communication inside teams and so much more. I have a lot of knowledge to draw on with future clients. Even so, I do my very best to realize that’s my equipment, and to view each person as a unique individual who is walking their own path toward what they want. I can draw on my knowledge in a skillful way, and customize to the client world, not just sprout forth my knowledge.

The joy of coaching is to walk on the path alongside of our client, to learn about them, to allow them the space to learn about themselves. And for them to own their learning, build their self-confidence in solving their dilemmas, and to make the learning real and permanent.

In Closing….

I’m pretty sure that in the playground, if the teacher/monitor had imposed their knowledge and Will on me about how to use the grid of bars equipment, I wouldn’t be writing about this happy childhood memory today. I might even feel the fear of the teacher/monitor today if they were afraid I might hurt myself and stop me from climbing.

With hindsight, there was a level of trust in me and my ability to navigate the grid of bars. And I am forever grateful to those teachers/monitors for allowing me the space and freedom to learn for myself, so that so many decades later this remains such a pivotal happy childhood memory for me. One I can draw on for so many lessons (now that I’ve written about it here).😊 

For more of the mindset of a Professional Coach, you can read the attached competencies called, Embodies a Coaching Mindset and Evokes Presence. 

Here are a few questions for your consideration:

What do you pride yourself that you know?

How do you define yourself based on what you know?

What fears do you bring to your coaching that impact your ability to be fully present and curious about your client?

What is your comfort level with not knowing how the journey will unfold with a coaching client?

When you hear what a client wants from coaching, what thinking and feeling is activated in you? For example, it could be “I know what you need to do and I have the answer for you.” Or perhaps, “I hear what you need, and let me help you to find the best way to navigate toward your desired outcome.” Or it could be something else.

What is uncomfortable for you about working in the space of not knowing?

What qualities can you rely on in yourself that you know about yourself?

What would need to shift in you to coach from the mindset and presence of not knowing?


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4 thoughts on “Not knowing…what to write about

  1. That was a lot that you shared, considering that you did not know what to write about in the first place. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Rahman. The writing process is a creative one, and not knowing what to write is always present.


  2. Thanks, Carly. I always look forward to reading your blog. Your mentoring really helped take my coaching to the next level.

    1. Thank you Eric. It’s gratifying to know that you’re still benefiting from our mentoring together.

      Warmly, Carly

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