Notes towards practising unknowing in coaching

By Martin Vogel


This is the second of a two-part series on the orientation of unknowing. Part 1 explored what is meant by unknowing. This second part discusses how it might be applied to coaching.

Unknowing can be viewed as a discipline. It is the practice of letting go of what we think we know, opening to freshness and holding ideas lightly. It is hard, because our identities, even our sense of moral worth, are wrapped up in our knowing. As with all disciplines, the more we practice, the more fluent we become.

Most of us have deep knowledge about a few small areas of life. You might call this erudition. Erudition is to be valued – though, even here, it is prudent to hold one’s knowledge open to challenge and revision. But beyond our areas of erudition, our knowledge about everything else tends to be very shallow. So shallow, it is hard to distinguish from ignorance. If we make decisions informed by ignorance, masquerading as knowledge, they can have unfortunate consequences. We might vote in a referendum on an issue we scarcely understand or espouse ways of responding to a novel virus about which (by definition) even scientific experts know very little.

Unknowing is about loosening our attachments to ignorant certainties – bringing, instead, humility and curiosity to the world as we find it. Applied to coaching, it entails relaxing the idea of coaching as solution-focussed and goal-oriented – leaning more towards a view of coaching as a reflective practice, in which coach and coachee explore and make sense together. It can help clients to encounter the world in fresh ways. Paradoxically, by entering a space where the pressure to have an answer is alleviated, the client is more likely to gain clarity about what to do next. What to do next might be to do nothing: to wait to see what emerges, and to be ready to respond.

Dimensions of unknowing

In order to guide clients to go unknowing into the world, coaches need to be able to explore unknowing in themselves. There are various dimensions to this. These are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps not exhaustive. But, for now, they map the terrain:

  • Not knowing – recognising this as a defining condition of life
  • Beginner’s mind – seeing things as if for the first time
  • Noticing – really taking in what is happening before us
  • Critical thinking – interrogating assertions beneath their face value
  • Pluralism – recognising and cultivating multiple perspectives
  • Moderation – distrust of extremism and dogma
  • Uncertainty – recognising that things are not fixed and subject to doubt
  • Emergence – allowing that processes unfold due to underlying factors outside our control
  • Complexity – appreciating when a context is not knowable in terms of routine constructs
  • Unlearning – a selective letting go of knowing, the better to create new learning

Some of these dimensions will be familiar to coaches. Noticing is a core coaching capability. The greater part of it is listening – an under-appreciated skill. Often when we listen, what we hear are the mental constructs that play out in our mind as another person speaks. Deep listening entails paying conscious attention to the dialogue that is occurring in the here and now – what the other person is saying, how what they are saying and feeling manifests in their body language, how they are affected by other occurrences in the environment, and how all of this is impacting on us in our mind, body and feelings.

The place of unknowing listening in dialogue is core to how coaching – and, in particular, leadership coaching – has its impact. It enables the cultivation of moral judgment – not the tick-box, code-based decision-making that plagues corporate life but the nuanced discernment that can find its bearings amid ambiguity. In Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions, Michael Carroll and Elisabeth Shaw trace the link between moral character and unknowing back to the Socratic idea of the good life:

To understand the relationship between values and action in leading a good life, Socrates pushed for a departure from the pontification, monologue and point scoring so commonly displayed by leaders (then and now), and a move toward dialogue. In such dialogue, ‘truth’ as an objective reality is put to the side, and we enter conversations to learn with an open mind and heart. For Socrates, ‘being open’ means putting aside beliefs about knowing and acknowledging one’s ignorance.

Division and polarisation occur because we are not skilled at listening with an open mind and heart. Culture wars arise from a dialogue of the deaf, whereby opposing sides throw howls of rage at each other which are met by ready-made interpretations that do not hear the underlying concerns. People are discombobulated by how pervasive this kind of discourse has become. Even in less fractious work or domestic situations, it’s common for conversation to be played out more from positions of disengaged knowing than from engaged listening. Most people are not used to receiving the kind of deep attention that can be paid in coaching.

Nor are they accustomed to being invited to view things as if from a beginner’s mind, unlearning what they know in order to generate fresh insights. For coaches to facilitate clients to do this, they would do well to train themselves in the same skills. Coaches can feel pressure to know, to be in control, but they can be of service by practising their own unlearning and bringing a beginner’s mind to each client interaction.

One of the ways to do this is to hold lightly the idea that a coaching session should reach an outcome, or achieve a goal. From the perspective of unknowing, the process is the outcome. The process offers a client the opportunity to step out of the normative world of knowing that we mostly inhabit, into a space where it is safe not to know.

Dimensions such as critical thinking, pluralism and moderation help generate multiple perspectives on the issues at hand and to be suspicious of axiomatic truths. They are the entry points of social and political lenses whereby the footprints of organisations are held to account. They facilitate clients to bring to their consideration of their corporate role other aspects of themselves – citizen, spouse, parent, partner, etc. Harnessed to enquiry into emergence and complexity, they foster ecosystemic perspectives which locate the individual and their organisation in intersecting networks – a more generative view than that which sees the organisation as a hierarchy discrete from society.

These dimensions remind us not to cleave too readily to whatever emerges as a way forward. The process encourages reflection that generates options. The coachee might leave with an idea of what to do next. But how it plays out is contingent on a multiplicity of factors in the days and weeks ahead.

Pluralism allows one to hold one’s own story lightly and to inhabit the worldview of other characters in it. The other characters in the story need not be literal others. Tatiana Bachkirova, in Developmental Coaching, reminds us that pluralism extends to oneself. Each of us is a complex of mini-selves. Each mini-self knows the world differently. When we interrogate them, our sense of cohesive knowing, of a consistent self, begins to fragment. The coaching space allows a softening of whatever mini-self shows up in the moment, so that the needs and desires of other parts of ourselves can be taken into account.

Favouring diverse modalities

Bringing unknowing to coaching creates aversion to institutionalising any particular modality. It disrupts expectations about what working with a coach should be so as to offer diverse ways of experiencing. A familiar model of coaching, of two people talking in a room, adopts time-worn routines of business life and thereby privileges the kind of thinking that arises in corporate settings. By its nature, it is language-based, rational, prone to cramming complex reality into simplified categories – the kind of thing that emanates from the brain’s left hemisphere.

Unknowing seeks to give the right hemisphere equal status. This yields a more holistic, pattern-oriented way of thinking. To bring the right hemisphere into the dialogue, it is helpful to create a sense of play. I like to get out of the coaching room and away from purely rational dialogue. Some of the inhibitions clients feel about this have fallen away in the pandemic. When we can’t meet inside and spend most of the day on video calls, people are delighted to meet in person to walk and talk outside. Just changing the context in this way can bring forward different kinds of insight. But there is also the possibility of drawing on found objects, such as a tree or a flower, to introduce metaphors that elicit unthought knowns. Or, as Jonathan Hoban does, we can enquire into how the way someone walks relates to what they are experiencing inside.

Other ways to invite the right hemisphere to the party include working with art, drawing, writing, role play, constellations, imaginative experiential exercises, paying attention to the body and mindfulness. These approaches – individually and in combination – facilitate varied ways of experiencing the questions at hand and inhibit staleness.

Finally, an orientation to unknowing in coaching is relational. If a goal orientation is de-prioritised and the process becomes the outcome, then the relationship is everything. Attention is paid to what is unfolding in real time, two subjects in the room exploring together. The coach relaxes any sense of having to rehearse powerful questions and trusts that how they will respond to what arises will be helpful. Not knowing here can be more resonant than colluding in the search for an easy answer. If the coach reflects back honestly what they are experiencing, “Wow, that must be hard!”, that can be validating for a client who has already discovered that what they are grappling with is complex and challenging.

Unknowing is not a technique nor a kitbag. It is a philosophic orientation that can be applied both to coaching and to leading. The coach who cultivates unknowing is better placed to support clients to find their ground amid uncertainty and false knowing. Beyond coaching and leading, unknowing presents an antidote to the ossification of thought that is fuelling division and insecurity in our times. It offers a way of being more at ease with the turbulence and finding inner resourcefulness. In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges – whether in one’s personal life or at the global level – it affords compassion for our lack of answers. If we allow ourselves not to know, perhaps a wise response might emerge.

If these ideas interest you, I am developing them at The Unknowing Project. Please join me there.

Image courtesy Tachina Lee.

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