What to Do With the I Don’t Know

shutterstock_1072714010In 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!

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Yes-pertise

In my work I end up reading, viewing, and even talking to quite a lot of experts in their field, which is both cool and critical to my own learning and growth. And in this process, letters-1-yes-1188348-1599x1066I’ve started noticing a quality I respond to in the experts I admire the most. I’m calling it yes-pertise, the ability to be both a kick-ass expert on their topic and to bring a sort of humility and wonder to their writing, teaching and sharing.

Dang, I love this, and here’s why: it honors us both. People who have spent a lot of time figuring stuff out, studying, thinking, researching, writing, etc. deserve our respect. Becoming an expert in one’s field isn’t an easy path. It generally requires huge amounts of discipline, creativity, perseverance, and passion. YAY! And of course no one person (or group) knows it all, and the wisest among us understand this as well. Someone with true yes-pertise is a “yes” to the contributions, insights, and ponderings of others, whatever their age, degree or experience. Even a seven-year-old might have a helpful insight or question, even a neophyte in a profession or practice might intuitively grasp something that has eluded a seasoned expert.

What we’ve learned from improv

Yes-pertise is a way of being open to the contributions of others without losing one’s own knowing. It has some roots in the idea from improvisational comedy that anything offered by a fellow actor is met with a “yes, and….” because a “but” or a negation will kill the scene:

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: This isn’t a beach, we’re on the subway and there’s a tuba player over there.  

Actor One: No, we’re at the freaking beach and I am going to make a sand castle! (Thunk goes the scene.)

OR

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: Yes, and look at that big tuba player over there, I wonder what he’s doing? 

Actor One: Well I brought my piccolo, but I’m worried it might get sandy. (A million places this could go….)

In the case of what I am calling yes-pertise, it has a similar impact–with expertise alone it can be a closed loop for the expert’s own knowledge, but those who share with yes-pertise tend to create open, ever expanding conversation in which everyone learns–and often are inspired.

Why does yes-pertise matter? 

The expertise part of someone with yes-pertise is critical to our being able to trust what they are saying. When someone brings forth their wisdom with confidence and clarity and we get a sense the depth of knowledge they are accessing, we tend to believe they are someone worth listening to and we pay attention.

The yes part of yes-pertise builds an even deeper trust. When someone is able to admit what they don’t know and/or be permeable to others’ contributions, it tells us that they understand they (like every human) have limits and are ultimately more interested in understanding than promotion of their own ego. This tends to create a feeling of being fellow explorers on the journey of knowledge rather than passive consumers of a set of information.

The older academic model was based on hierarchy and domination. Even the language: you have to “defend” your thesis or your point. What do we defend against? Attack. Is my single (or perhaps a team) effort good enough, or is someone else smarter, will they prove me wrong? In this model, the delight comes often comes from refutation of previous work, being at the top of the heap by pushing someone else down. (NOTE: not all academics are like this, many exhibit true yes-pertise, for example, vulnerability research and teacher Brene Brown and Mindsight author Dan Siegel.)

The idea of yes-pertise calls us to seek understanding together. If we are experts, to hold strong in what we know but at the same time be very open to what we don’t and what others might bring. And where we aren’t experts, I think yes-pertise calls us to offer what we see from our own perspective and experience, trusting that life and our very humanness has granted us a place at the table of wisdom.

The AHA Moment in Coaching

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As coaches, we are ultimately concerned with what we (perhaps somewhat arrogantly) call transformation. I have seen newer coaches struggling to create that “aha” moment of truth and realization for their clients on every single call (and feeling they have somehow failed if it doesn’t happen). In other words, that perfect question or interaction which produces transformation, after which the client will never be the same. (Okay coach, transform this client: GO.)

Oh if it were only all so easy. But human development is a rich, complex, and—most importantly—in coaching, a co-creative process. And it’s impossible to say how many sessions that will take. Sorry HR, I can’t promise any sort of tangible results ever, much less in the six half-hour sessions you are willing to pay for.

And so I want to tell you two fairly typical stories of coaching.

The Two Million Dollar “Aha” Moment

I once had a client who worked as a commodities trader. For a variety of reasons, he came into coaching feeling disconnected from his job and colleagues. He was a high producer, but something was missing in terms of his engagement. After two or three sessions, he had a true “aha” that he was being somewhat adolescent in his response to being passed over for what he thought was an in-the-bag promotion. And, more importantly, that this was by no means the way to move ahead. So he swallowed his pride, went to his boss and asked what it would take to get the promotion with (in his words) “calm curiosity.” Turns out that this question was the missing piece – he had been perceived as not taking his own development seriously. More importantly, he realized he didn’t want to be a bratty teenager at work, so he dug in, found things to be interested in again, and within a few months got the promotion.

He told me three interesting things on our final call – one, that by the time he got the promotion, it mattered less than he had assumed it would, and two, that he was proud of himself again. Then I asked him about what he thought the return on investment of coaching had been for him. He estimated his increased engagement meant probably half a cent more profit on a bushel of the commodity he was trading. For this company, that added up to at least two million dollars a year.

The Long Slow Process of Becoming

I had another client, much earlier in my coaching career (in fact, I think I was still getting my certification). Honestly, most of the time I felt I was stumbling around in the dark. We had wonderful conversations about purpose and values, and there perhaps were mini “ahas” but not the big life-changing payoff my coaching ego was desperately hoping for. After about 10 sessions, the coaching sort of drifted to a halt. I always thought I had failed.

However, we stayed in touch via friends, the occasional lunch, and later, Facebook, and after a while I saw she had enrolled in law school. She became even more active in her community than she was previously and there was tremendous leadership and wisdom displayed in her Facebook posts about community issues. It was clear she was up to something. A year or two ago, she was elected to City Council in her large city.

I honestly have NO idea whether the coaching played a role or not – she was always someone who was going to make a huge difference in the world. I think I was probably a small part of her process, which needed time to unfold.

The Role of Co-Creation

I’ve been a coach for 17 years now, and I can promise you that most experienced coaches have versions of both stories. Of course we love to tell the first one, and in my case, to be honest, I was a more experienced coach at that time. I am sure there was a boldness to my coaching that was not yet acquired with my earlier client, which definitely had an impact. But even today, I notice some clients fly with very little from me, having big “ahas!” on almost every call, and using these to move into productive action in their lives.

But some clients seem to be on a slower path of self-discovery. For the second group, they may have an “aha!” and then lose it the minute we hang up, going back to old habits. Even though there are ways to use structures and support for this group, it is often a much more gradual process. But generally, what I have seen here is that at some point it clicks. We’ve been around that mulberry bush enough times that something happens—from a brain standpoint, I think it is neuroplasticity. There are now enough neural connections on the new path (from talking about it, trying baby steps, failing, feeling the pain of the old way that is not serving, etc.) that it (finally) becomes a viable choice for the client.

What does this take? It vastly depends. In the first case, my client had been in a process of self-exploration even before coaching. I came in to a field that was tilled and ready for planting. In the second case, my client was just beginning to explore some feelings of wanting to have a bigger impact in the world. I was part of tilling that field, but it needed more before it was ready to plant.

Wherever we meet people on their path, and whatever impact we have as coaches, healers, etc., I hold it all as aspects of transformation, whether it seems so at the time or not. And this is a messy, unpredictable, unquantifiable and ultimately gloriously human process.