In one of my coaching classes we started the weekend by exploring the “thing we can’t be with.” In terms of coaching, I have to say, it’s probably that client who just keeps saying “I don’t know,” or otherwise goes flat or blank, even with the best, most provocative powerful question. Argh!! What the heck I am I supposed to do with THAT? I’m not the magic reveal your life purpose fairy, nor am I the sherpa who will carry you up the hill.
But I am the curious brain examiner, so maybe it will help if we go there. Let’s start by looking at a few reasons why a client might get stuck in the I don’t knows, and what you could try if you think that’s what’s happening.
1. They are over-activated in the left hemisphere of their brain. This is often my working hypothesis when the “I don’t know” feels energetically more flat or rigid (the left hemisphere when very over-calibrated takes us to rigidity), and when it is in response to questions like “What do you want?” “What values are important to you?” “What if anything was possible?” etc. And here’s why–those questions are a bit more right hemisphere friendly (for more on the two hemispheres of the brain see Come On Over to The Right Side and Right Brain – Left Brain–Is It All A Myth?), and if the client is currently (or habitually) stuck in their left hemisphere, they simply may not have any access in this moment.
What to do: You have a couple of options here. One is to ask some questions that are more left-hemisphere friendly, and luckily this actually isn’t hard. The left hemisphere LOVES to judge and evaluate and criticize. So ask the client to do this. Questions like “what are some of the things that don’t work in your current situation?” or even, “what drives you crazy?” can easily be flipped to mine for the client’s values. For example, if the client says “I can’t stand the way my boss micro-manages me, it’s so insulting!” you can probe to see if the value is autonomy, respect, trust, etc. Ok, now we know at least one thing the client may want to shift or change. (Even before I knew about the brain, it was always so interesting to me, and I am sure to most of you as well, how often it was quicker and easier for a client to answer “what don’t you want?” than “what do you want?”)
The second option is to bring them into the right hemisphere, and the best way to do this is NOT through verbal language (which may actually keep them more stuck in the left). Instead, use images, metaphors, and connection to the body as your doorway in. It may help to say to a reluctant client something along the lines of: “In order to help you discover more of who you are and what you really want, we need to activate a part of your brain that is less strategic and linear. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to strategy and steps for implementation. But first we need to get you connected to something deeper, and this is the best way I know.”
2. They are over-activated in the right hemisphere of the brain. While the left hemisphere over-calibrated becomes rigid, the right becomes chaotic. So if I have a client who is all over the place in their not-knowing, and/or feels like any direction they take will cut off some other wonderful idea or possibility, this is my hypothesis. It can feel a lot like a car starting and stopping or a tornado swirling, and I find it exhausting to coach. The client will start down a path that feels resonant, only to turn and double back again. Ack!
What to do: Again, there are a couple of options. Take them into it, or take them out of it. In the first, I often go with the swirl, first making it even a bit bigger (“Yes! and you could also do this, and this and this!”) and then having the client view what their life is like down the road if they stay in this confusion and continue to keep all their options open. What does life look like? Is that what they really want?
In the second, I like to lean into the left hemisphere a bit by having the client get very linear about each option. Get it out of their head and onto paper. Bullet point it. Make a spreadsheet or matrix. I actually love to help them with this (and sometimes I really need to if they are massively all over the place). You might say something like “Let’s look at each thing, what it would take and how you would feel about it. And don’t worry, you don’t have to commit right now to any of it. Let’s just get it all out of your head and onto the table where you can really look at it.” And of course, as we as coaches already know, once the client can actually look at all of it, they often start seeing patterns and realizing where the energy is.
3. They are overwhelmed or underwhelmed by stress. When we have either too much or too little stimulation going on in our lives, it can make it hard to think and focus. (See The Goldilocks of the Brain for more on this.) Our prefrontal cortex is needed for this function, and it likes to be in balance. I like to say stimulated, but not stressed is my happy, most productive place. If you have a client who is very bored, not being well-used in their work or life, or a client who is barely managing to keep all the plates spinning, you may run into the “I don’t knows.” Their brain is simply not in the right biochemical state to know!
What do do: this may be obvious, but the first thing is to help get their lovely brains back to the state where focus and direction and some aspect of clarity is possible. If they are under-stimulated (this can happen when they are re-entering the workforce, too long in the same job, under-utilized at work, disconnected from their purpose and passions, etc.), they simply need to get stimulated. Adding some challenge and stress and interesting pursuits will spike the chemical balance in a positive direction.
And if (as many clients are) they are overwhelmed, over-scheduled and over-worked, take a look at this list for some research-based ideas for diminishing the chemical overload. (And as a bonus, here is a short video of me using this idea as a coaching tool.)
There may, of course, be other brain-related reasons a person gives you the “I don’t knows,” but honestly, mostly what I have encountered as a coach is some combination of the above. I hope this helps!