Unknowing: an orientation for coaching and leading

By Martin Vogel

One doesn’t need to work long as a coach to encounter clients who bridle against the profession’s non-directivity ethos and demand answers. “I want tips, not coaching,” one said to me recently. “What’s making you say that?” I replied – impolitely deflecting the request.

In fairness, this encounter arose at a time when I was particularly unlikely to comply. Through the pandemic, I’ve been musing on what I call my unknowing project. I’ve become convinced that we cherish knowing too much – or rather, the feeling of knowing. We live in an era of intersecting complex challenges – globalisation, environmental crisis, social and racial inequities, nationalism. Covid, sometimes referred to as a syndemic, cuts across all of these. Complex challenges are defined by the difficulty of designing a solution. Yet they characteristically call forth simplistic answers from people who are uncomfortable with this fact. Which is to say, most of us. Homo sapiens, the man who knows, prizes having answers. But we are, as Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have found, more ignorant than we allow.

Any client who comes into coaching feels, at some level, the pressure of the need to know. Coaching risks colluding with the fantasy of knowing in the face of complexity. Perhaps, instead, we can contextualise it. Both coach and client can try to approach the world with some humility about the limits of our knowledge.

My thoughts on unknowing are a work in progress; their application to coaching, even more so. I would welcome feedback.

Part 1 of this two-part series explores what I mean by unknowing. Part 2 considers how this might inform the practice of coaching.

Why unknowing?

Unknowing is not a celebration of ignorance. It’s an advocacy of scepticism. If we create false knowing in response to difficulty, the risk – all too apparent in the current moment – is that our answers solidify into intolerant orthodoxies. Unknowing is not a political agenda. But I’m liberationist in my sympathies and my framing of unknowing reflects this. I’m allergic to any whiff of dogma or authoritarianism. Unknowing can counter such forces. Intolerance and polarisation are creating jeopardy in people’s lives – many fear saying what they think and calling opprobrium upon themselves.

It would be helpful to step back from our habitual responses to make space for nuance. If one dislikes populism, is it possible nonetheless to understand the real grievances that ignite it? If one agitates for social justice, can one recognise why the rightness of the cause does not automatically legitimise a particular form of campaign? When we advocate for a position, are we motivated by desire for material change, or perhaps simply enacting a preferred identity?

Jeopardy is present in corporate life as much as in the civic realm. Organisations coalesce around believable narratives which harbour authoritarian internal cultures. Corporations such as Facebook or Google elicit cognitive dissonance among employees who struggle to reconcile their toxic impacts with the spin of their being benign innovators. Even organisations with public purposes struggle to deal with uncomfortable facts that contradict the narratives that sanctify them – see, for instance, Oxfam, the NHS or the BBC.

The veneration of knowing in working life creates unreasonable expectations – to be world class, to work beyond the point of exhaustion, to leave normal values at the door when you start work each morning. Clients who come into coaching have learned to know the way their organisations know. If coaches collude with them, they introject the unreasonable pressure that their clients already bear.

The roots of unknowing

Unknowing is a tricky term. It can describe naivety or stupidity. But another usage has roots in the wisdom traditions and carries through to significant modern thinkers.

Buddhism recognises that that not knowing is a condition of life. The Buddhist practice of right view entails, in part, a letting go of attachments to opinions in order to appreciate that reality is not equivalent to our thought processes. A Medieval Christian mystic text, The Cloud of Unknowing, also advocated relinquishing routine knowing, the better to bring one’s whole being into apprehension.

Not knowing is the impetus that drives the scientific method. Each discovery extends the boundaries of knowledge – but then stands contingent until disproven by the next advance. Post-war social scientists were animated by anxieties of misguided knowing. John Rawls introduced the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance, behind which – shorn of our identities and (again) attachments – we might be more likely to reach reliable conclusions about what constitutes justice. Friedrich Hayek worried that the essential unknowability of life made it dangerous to try to build societies that attempted to rectify injustice – it would entail investing too much power in those who presumed to know, creating seedbeds of totalitarianism.

The former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, became a kind of poet of unknowing with his reflections on the known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns that confront decision makers. Curiously, he neglected the unknown known, a kind of non-cognitive knowing. The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas described what he called “the unthought known” as “an experience of being rather than mind, rooted in the total involvement of the self rather than objectified via representational or abstract thought.”

To advocate unknowing is not to denigrate knowing. Knowing is a necessity even when it’s not wholly accurate. Our heuristics – the shortcut mental models by which we recognise the world – need only to be good enough to enable us to function in our environment. But our conceit that we are the knowing species disguises our discomfort that there is much that we don’t know.

But surely we are disabused of this attachment to knowing by now? The developments we have experienced in recent years – Brexit, Covid, the storming of the US Capitol building, the rapid warming of the planet – have catapulted us into a world of unknowing in which old certainties no longer apply. The complexity of our challenges means that old-think won’t suffice. We need to let go of the deceptively easy thinking of solutionism, the reaching for beguiling abstract nouns which conceal the lack of substance behind our knowing. Instead, we need to learn the difficult business of being with our uncertainty in the world.

How to go about this is the subject of Part 2.

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

Image courtesy Evan Dennis.

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