What to do with “I Don’t Know”

By Robert I Holmes

Being a parent is very close to being a coach – at least that becomes more and more true as they get older. We transition from being over the kids, to being ahead of the teens (or at least trying to be), to being beside our adult offspring. Of course I want to avoid the terrible issues we get into when we try to coach our family as a professional, they hate that. So apart from saying “like” and “cool” a lot, I find my teens using the phrase “I don’t know” a lot.

Quite often it happens during a serious conversation, or a confrontation. When it relates to evidence or facts one ‘I don’t know’ is quite normal. Maybe they don’t actually know what you’re on about. But when faced with a series of “I don’t know” responses, the coach in me recognises there is resistance – an underlying issue.

The truth of it is, the person does know. They’re just not saying. During a master coach training session a while back, we were discussing this phenomena when it happens to our clients. Jaemin suggested the following advice:

1) The issue and the cost are separate

Help the person separate the cost of knowing from the issue itself. The issue can be dealt with, without incurring the cost – just like window shopping. It doesn’t have to go on your credit card – we’re just looking OK? So what does it cost you to know? Example: I ask my daughter, “What do you want to do after year 12?” She says, “I don’t know”. OK if you could do anything, anything at all, dream big. “I don’t know.” There must be something, travel, study, work… “I don’t know.” Clearly something is up here… What is the cost of answering this question? “If I pick something, it means I can’t have my other options.” OK now we’re getting somewhere. You’re afraid that by selecting something you deselect everything else.

2) Let go of self judgement

Very often the person is struggling with the issue you have happened across. There’s a voice in their head saying, “How dare you feel that way about this!” or “Mum would never do this.” Help the person step outside the question for a minute, stop judging and criticising so hard, and just let the answers be what they are.

3) Think about the issue a different way

You might be stuck in the wrong mode. Change modalities on the person… instead of asking how, ask why or what if… or move from “how do you feel about it” to seeing, hearing, thinking or moving toward a new idea. Use them all, one at a time until they get through the log jam.