Notes towards practising unknowing in coaching

By Martin Vogel

Questioning

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.

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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.

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