This post was written by Deborah Baron, NCC, ACC, a Newfield graduate of the Coaching for Personal & Professional Mastery program.

A couple of weeks ago, I began working with a new client. In our first session, each time I got curious and asked her a question, she answered me by saying, “I don’t know.”

At Newfield, we often say that “I don’t know,” is a wonderful place to begin. It opens up the possibility for learning because it allows one to declare oneself a newbie. Declaring oneself a beginner enables the opportunity for inquiry, exploration, and conversations about what is possible. In this space, one can question the things that one typically does not question, and we can allow ourselves to begin a new journey or look with new eyes at our routine way of seeing the world.

One of the things we look at in Newfield is our ‘enemies of learning,’ the things that make it difficult for us to learn and transform. When I teach the enemies of learning in workshops, I observe how we, as human beings, often live with the inability to say, “I don’t’ know.”

Saying “I don’t know” may make us feel like we haven’t prepared sufficiently for a meeting or that we haven’t completed our homework before a project kickoff. We tend to believe that when we don’t admit we don’t know, we are protecting ourselves from being thought of as incompetent or a bad leader.

However, when we hold not knowing as wrong or something to hide, we can also lose the learning possibility that exists in claiming that we are ignorant regarding a particular matter or issue. When we openly acknowledge that we don’t know, we can actively seek new knowledge, enter into new conversations, strengthen relationships, and encounter new ways of collaborating.

Being Present as a Coach

It is important as a coach to remember that coaching is an art form that requires presence and deep listening. It is important as a coach to know that the meaning of words is dependent upon the context in which they are spoken. In the case of this client, “I don’t know” spoken in a soft tone and a contracted body was not a declaration into mindful and enthusiastic beginnerhood; rather in this case, ‘I don’t know’ was a latent or hidden request to elicit answers from the coach. Once I was able to discern the meaning of my client’s ‘I don’t know,’ we were able to co-create practices that assisted her in connecting with her own wisdom and intuition.

Through this experience with my client, I, too, have opened up to new possibilities as a coach. This experience reaffirmed the importance of seeing what is underneath my client’s words; paying attention to body language, emotion, tone, inflection, and rhythm of speech. Meaning is generated not just through words, but also by how they are being said and the context in which they are spoken. Even though “I don’t know” can be the first step to transformation, in some cases it can be an avoidance tactic or a way to give up or even a request for answers. As a coach, I can listen deeply enough and remember that there are many meanings to every word. I can see beyond the “I don’t know” to what lies beneath.

Discover Your New Possibilities

For those of you that are coaches, I propose these questions:

  • What is your relationship with not knowing?
  • Are you using your client’s body language and emotion to source your questions as a coach?
  • Are you noticing what lies beneath your client’s words? Or, do you take their words at ‘face’ value?

For those who are not coaches but want to experiment with new ways of observing and being in the world:

  • What is your relationship to saying: “I don’t know?”
  • How do you hear this when others say it?
  • When is “I don’t know” opening possibilities? When is it closing them?


Want to learn more about our course offerings? Check out our Foundation Course for transformative personal development and the first step towards becoming a Certified Coach.

About the Author: 

Deborah A. Baron, NCC, ACC, is a leadership, life, executive and transformative coach who is committed to building and strengthening organizations and communities large and small. She works with individuals and groups to help them successfully develop the tools and confidence they need to build nurturing organizations that operate in a mood of enthusiasm and ambition, reach their goals with greater ease and success, and see and touch a future that they may not have previously known how to access. Deborah is a Newfield Network Certified Coach, is a member of the Newfield Network Advisory Board, and is currently a student in Michael Neill’s Supercoach Academy. She holds an MBA from the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh and a BBA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Deborah has over 30 years of experience in leading for-profit and non-profit organizations in management, community development, and economic development-related fields and most recently held the position of Chief Operating Officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

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