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Focusing on What a Client Does Know


Have you ever had a situation where you asked a client a question, and their answer was “I don’t know”?

When this happened to me in two different coaching sessions, I decided to refocus my questions on what the client might possibly know. And in both cases, doing that resulted in new information emerging even when the client didn’t first have any knowledge about what they were being asked.

In both cases, I employed clean questions to invite the client to know even more about what they wanted or were experiencing. The clean questions I used are in bold below.

Clarifying Outcomes

The first session was with a CEO client. We had a one-hour session together and she had already replied to a pre-coaching questionnaire about what goals she wanted to achieve. And given that her goals may have changed between the time she filled in the questionnaire and our coaching session, and that I needed to hear and clarify what her outcome was for the session we were having, I asked her:

What would you like to have happen in today’s session?
I don’t know. I have no expectations.

Instead of feeling bemused by her response, I accepted what she said with no judgement. And I tried again, this time reflecting back the words she had used, in my question.

And when you don’t know and have no expectations, what would you like to have happen between now and 10.30am?
Ah, I’d like to know how to manage difficult team members.

With just one additional question, an iteration of the first that had more specific time boundaries, the client was able to articulate what she wanted to get out of the hour we were spending together.

Clarifying Knowledge

My second client was in a transitional phase in her life. She wanted a change because she was no longer energised by what she was currently doing. And yet, she was fearful of actually making any changes.

At the start of the session, she said her outcome for the session was to discover, “How do I actually manage the fear and have the guts to carry it (the change she wanted) through.”

After nearly an hour of coaching and as we were reaching the end of the session, I asked her:

And what do you know now about “How do I actually manage the fear and have the guts to carry it through”?
I don’t know.

Even though I was a bit surprised because of all the work we had done during the hour, I accepted the client where she was, making no assumptions or judgements about her not knowing. And then I decided to focus instead on what she knew a lot about – her fears.

And what do you know now about fear?
There are so many different types. At the start, in my pre-coaching questionnaire, the fear was only one version – of moving forward and disappointing the team. Now, there are different versions of fear I’m dealing with. Not just of moving forward. But also of being stuck in one place. And then there’s the positive fear that is normal when I’m learning the ropes. There are so many dimensions to that fear. Some fears are more manageable while others are more crippling.

No wonder she couldn’t answer my first question! The answer to the second clearly demonstrated that the client did know a lot even if it initially seemed like she hadn’t gotten much out of the coaching session. Indeed, the client reported in her feedback that “a lot of new things” had popped up for her during the session.

My Learning

These two client responses have taught me that focusing on what a client knows can yield far more knowledge than asking the client to figure out what they don’t know.

These sessions also demonstrate the beauty of David Grove’s clean questions. Because they are so open, neutral, judgement-free and flexible, a coach can still use the same question and change what the question focuses attention on. Indeed, that may be all that is needed to make a difference.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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