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The gifts of trust and 'not knowing'

One of the freedoms afforded to a coach, one not to be taken lightly, is the gift of ‘not needing to know’. Relevant knowledge is part of establishing credibility when talking with a prospective client, indeed it might well be the key to winning their favour. However, once the coaching starts that same knowledge, if held too dear by the coach, can influence the direction of the coaching discussion. That keystone of coaching, the client’s responsibility for their thinking and actions arising, is put at risk. That metaphorical monkey is sensed as moving from the client’s to the coach’s shoulder. I remember that point being made very clearly to me by my coaching supervisor. In a conversation about a particular coaching session she threw a furry toy monkey at me every time I appeared to be taking responsibility or when I put too much onus on my need to know!

The monkey on the shoulder as a metaphor for responsibility works well for me and I do have a strong sense when I am erring in that direction. I can see in my mind’s eye that small toy monkey looking down from my shoulder! This is positively reinforced from my own experience of coaching where my client’s best work is without question done when I unconditionally trust them to have the power and capability to meet their own challenge. My role is simply to challenge them, help the think differently, and see new perspectives.

For a some time now the value of not knowing as a coach is something that I recognise and use in my coaching practice. At one time I might have been happy to say that it is a characteristic that has become second nature in my coaching practice. At one time it almost did. It became a habit and I started to loose my ability to recognise when I was starting to overuse my knowing, now without realising it. Now I keep that awareness alive and active through all my coaching work.

To achieve that I remain sensitive to reminders about the importance of using ‘not knowing’ effectively. I had one such example of recently where I was facilitating a session for a group of young leaders. The brief for the session had been fairly loose with the intention being to help them form into a team and to discuss some tools that would help them. I prepared my resources and found myself surprised at how uncomfortable I felt about their suitability. Okay, so this was not coaching and I did have a responsibility to know what I was talking about so what lay behind my concern? Looking back I think it was an inadvertent lack of trust in the client, in this case the group, to work with me to enrich whatever content I shared with them.

As always happens when I actually start working with people I established that necessary trust with them and my mind’s narrative of ‘is this going to go alright’ dissipates quickly. In this case all the thinking I offered to them was taken to another level by their discussion and contextualised to meet their particularly needs. Brilliant! We learned together.

The very best part of this session came about from my being comfortable with not knowing. The group were asked to discuss what makes a high performing team. Inevitably communication came up and the group took the discussion off on a tangent about giving and receiving feedback. Their dialogue was open, honest and inclusive. It was important to them and after it played out they had a much better idea about how to work with each other. I had no idea that this was going to happen and could have insisted that they stuck to my agenda. On some level the value to my clients’ of this part of the session depended on my being comfort with not knowing. Being reminded of this, and being aware of the reminder, keeps that monkey off my shoulder to the benefit of the people I work with ….. and to the benefit of myself.

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