Here are 15 Ways to Turn "I Don't Know" into an Aha Moment!

Often when our clients say "I don't know", they really do know - they're just unwilling to acknowledge or face the answer. If it was was easy to say aloud they would have done so. There can be many reasons for the "I don't know", but if we trust our instincts and explore gently - we may just be rewarded with an Aha moment!

There are any number of reasons for that, "I don't know" - but most of them are probably a fear of the consequences of stating that answer aloud. Maybe it means they will need to acknowledge some change is needed in their lives (they might have to quit their job) or maybe they don't trust US enough yet and are afraid what we will think. It could be that they're afraid what their inner critic will say to their answer (don't be such a baby!). They may not want to disappoint us (I'm not ready to take that step). Perhaps their logical, rational side thinks their answer is ridiculous, childish or immature (she won't like me any more). Perhaps if they say the answer out loud they'll have to face something unpleasant (have that difficult conversation with their boss/partner). Or maybe it's something else...

But whenever we don't acknowledge what we're REALLY thinking, we are rejecting a part of ourselves. We're more focused on who we think we SHOULD be, than who we actually are. And when we do this we literally block ourselves from moving forwards, because what we're saying is - I'm ashamed/embarrassed/afraid of that part of me.

Yet when we face that thought, that feeling and say, "I know I need to quit my job but I'm afraid" or "I feel like such a child, but I don't want to apologise" or "I'm such a coward. I'm terrified that they won't understand and will laugh at me/it will damage our friendship." Now we have the truth - and something real to work with.

From here we can look at the feelings, explore the judgements, prepare back-up plans, discover new options, and MOST importantly honour the whole person. By this I mean honour the parts of our clients that feel afraid, embarrassed, ashamed, resentful. All those feelings we shouldn't really feel - but still do. And it's a great time to remind our clients, "Just because you FEEL or THINK it doesn't make it true."

So, here are 15 ways to respond and turn that "I don't know" into an Aha moment!

  1. "This is a good place to start. Lets relax for a moment into this 'don't know' place."
  2.  Simply use silence. Don't respond at all and wait calmly for their answer.
  3. "Remember that just because you answer, doesn't mean you need to do anything about it."
  4.  You may want to use a softener before this question: "What are you pretending not to know?"
  5. "I feel that too sometimes. Take a moment and let me know when you've thought of something"
  6. "What if you secretly knew the answer?"
  7. "So, what's underneath the 'I don't know?' What are you avoiding?"
  8. "What is it like for you to not know?"
  9. "How do you feel right now as you think about answering this question?"
  10. "Hmmmm. Take a deep breath and just allow yourself feel into the question for a second."
  11.  Use with caution and excellent rapport, "If I were to snap my fingers and you knew…" (snap fingers)
  12. "So, if (what they don't know about) had a colour/smell/taste/sound, what would it be?"
  13. "OK, so what if you were to give me an approximate answer or a range?"
  14. "Hmmmm. Let's try something here. Take a deep breath and let your unconscious mind create the answer as a picture instead of trying to make it happen."
  15. Ask them for THEIR helicopter perspective. "Imagine you're in a helicopter flying over the map of your life. What do you notice about your life from way up there? Looking down with this new perspective, how would you answer the question now?"

So, don't feel caught out by, "I don't know" ever again. Have patience. Use one of these responses to inspire you and you never know, it may even be YOU who has the Aha moment!

Watch out for: When we encourage our client to reveal themselves the client must trust and feel safe with us - enough to be vulnerable. So, take your time. Be kind, compassionate and understanding. Remember to reflect back what they have said and confirm understanding - without judgement. Be a coach. Be YOU.

If you liked the coaching questions in this article, you may also like:

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Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

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  1. Virginia

    Really good questions - for any of us. I need to answer a few for myself. Printing this out for a niece who is in prison. She likes this kind of material for herself and shares it too.

    • Emma-Louise

      Hi Virginia, Thank-you for taking the time to comment - and so glad you liked this article and found it helpful Warmly, Emma-Louise

  2. Mansard Garros

    I have been struggling with some social anxiety issues my entire life, and I can't figure them out. Yet my therapist keeps asking me "what is that about?" "What are you afraid of?" and the truth is I really do not know. Not always, but in certain situations, I dread having to contact people or make a phone call. I know there is nothing to fear. I know I am perfectly capable of doing it. I am not catastrophizing about how "I ALWAYS fail! I KNOW I'll embarrass myself" etc. I never do that. I know things are likely to go well, I know that whatever might not go perfectly will not be a disaster. I put it off, I agonize over it, finally I force myself to make the call. I achieve what I need to, what I knew I would achieve, and I am immensely relieved. But the next time I have to go through it all over again. It doesn't get better. It doesn't matter how many times it goes well, how successful I am, how much I know it's going to go well, the next time I go through the same dread and must again push through it. It never changes, never gets better.

    Yet all my therapist can do is ask "what do you think it is?" and I REALLY DO NOT KNOW! Then he tells me to stop saying "I don't know."

    Some of the above "techniques" are insulting, my therapists have tried some of them, they make it sound like I am lying about not knowing. But I really do not know! I don't understand it at all, it makes no sense. Still it is happening.

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Mansard,
      That sounds hard.
      The techniques above are intended for coaches to use - no counsellors. And they should be used only with kindness, appropriately and with good rapport between coach and client (or with ourselves).
      I have had similar experience - where my mind can see something is "just fine" but I am still dreading it.
      Kindness towards ourself instead of judgement is important. I've no idea how you talk to yourself, but I'm guessing you're probably tough on yourself.
      Also. A concept you might find useful is that of "parts". Recognizing that one "part" is fine, and another "part" is afraid. Then getting to know the afraid part, supporting it, being kind to it. And gradually teaching it that it's safe with you, that you've "got the situation" and care about them.
      Richard C. Schwartz has developed a whole system around the idea of "parts" and it is very interesting:
      I hope this gives you some ideas.
      Warmly, Emma-Louise

  3. Gary

    It might be the legitimate answer. I don’t hesitate to say it, if I don’t know. It’s honesty. It can be seen as a strength of character.

  4. Loga priyanka

    It is really helpful. I gained a new perspective on this topic, and I am sure I will apply it in my life. Thanks for this lovely post!

  5. Mijin

    I get a lot of inspiration from your posts. Also, these are practical methods that I empathize with and want to apply to myself and others. thank you

    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Mijin, thank-you so much for taking the time to comment. And I'm glad you find inspiration in our articles—we work hard to make our articles practical and helpful 🙂
      Warmly, Emma-Louise


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