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Coaching case study: I don’t know…don’t know!


Richard Hawkes describes how to deal with a coachee who has an attack of the 'I don't know' syndrome.

Most coaching takes place in an environment where the coach can draw out from the coachee their hopes, aspirations and ideas. Sometimes a coachee will have an attack of the “I don’t know” syndrome. This can be repeated over and over again even though the coach may reverse or approach the question in a different way.
This is a real challenge for a coach when a line of questioning draws a blank, and again and again and again.


The coachee

Elaine is an office manager in a large corporate organisation. Elaine has been in this role for eight years and is very competent and accurate at her work. She has built very comfortable relationship with all the people in her department and the team has been rolling on as a well oiled machine for some years now.
Recently a member of an associated team has been replaced. Elaine has to work closely with this person who is on an equal level to her in the organisation. The new person is a very different character to the previous incumbent of that role and is beginning to cause some reaction in all parts of the organisation. This is a result of her previous role where she was in an organisation that had much tighter controls and reporting processes.

The last coaching conversation went something like this:

Coach: “So how are things going for you Elaine and what do you want to talk to me about?”
Elaine: “Things are so very different now that Jill is here. We all used to know where we stood and what was expected of us, but now nobody seems sure. We get information from Jill and then almost immediately she is after us for a report. We do not have the time to do the works properly and I feel very pressurised”
Coach: “Tell how this pressure looks to you.”
Elaine: Well, physically stuff is piling up in my in tray. Mentally I feel that I am being steamrollered and whilst this is not actually the case, as far as my brain is concerned I am being shouted at so loudly that I cannot even think straight.
Coach: How is this affecting your work and the work of your team?”
Elaine: We look as if we cannot cope and I suppose with all this ‘noise’ all my team are becoming stressed and keep coming to me asking questions. They obviously fell like me confused and uncomfortable”
Now that the coach has the background, it is time to start working on actions both historic and future. The questioning can now move to looking at current realities to establish the areas which Elaine has covered and then follow on to those that have not been covered.                                                                                      
Coach: “What have you done about it so far Elaine?”
Elaine: “What can I do about it? My line manager, as we have said before, has always just left me to get on with things, so does not expect me to start becoming a complainer”
As a coach you could follow a line of questioning here to find out the blockers to “What can I do about it” and then work on these, or as in this conversation continue head on. The questioning on blockers is probably best left be left until the coach has made absolutely sure that Elaine is not just hiding behind the “I don’t know”
Coach: “So what should you be doing about it Elaine?”
Elaine: “I don’t know”
Coach: “And if you did know?”
Elaine: “Well I, I really do not know”
Coach: “If you were giving advice to yourself. What would that advice be?”
Elaine: “Honestly I do not know. I have thought about this long and hard. I have spoken it through with my husband and he just tells me to get on with it. I have never come across anything like this before”
Coach: “Elaine, let’s just step outside ourselves and let’s assume that you were in a position to give yourself advice. Can you get into that way of thinking? Now tell yourself what you should do in this difficult situation where Jill has come in and is disrupting all the patterns that have built up over the years”
Elaine: “Honestly I still do not know. Maybe I should leave and see if it is better somewhere else”
Coach: “Is that the answer?”
Elaine: “No, but I still do not know what is.”

What next?

So here we are at impasse. The coach could continue on this conversation that is going nowhere. However the best approach may well be to put this to one side and start a question line working around where Elaine want to be in say three years; what Elaine is good at and how she can develop that; what is really upsetting her with this new person; what is still good and not so good about her job. Work around some positives and away from the negative “I don’t know”. This will lead into a reverse into the problem of Jill and after a further 15-20 minutes, Elaine will have come up with her answers once she has got the negativity of “I don’t Know” behind her.
The other approach is to work on the things that are blocking Elaine talking to her line manager.  This may be the whole problem and there is a good chance that Elaine will be more open in this area.
As a coach you must be very aware when a conversation is getting into a dead end. Be very aware how far you are going and how far you should go. At the same time prepare in your mind the alternative routes to achieve the objective. The objective in this case is something like “Hang on a minute, maybe I could...”
If you have any other suggestions of ways to deal with this situation, do let us know.
Richard Hawkes is a leading business coach with Unlimited Potential you can follow Richard's updates on Twitter: @unltdpotential.

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