In my previous incarnation as a business consultant, one of my biggest fears was to be caught on the hop without a good answer. My stock-in-trade was expertise, authority, knowhow. Confessing to a client or colleague, “I don’t know” seemed like a dereliction of duty and an invitation to disaster.
Of course, everyone has to resort to that line occasionally, and we learned that to do so openly and confidently could actually have a disarming effect (and was anyway better than being exposed as a bullshitter). But the value of this tactic lay in its scarcity. Our responsibility was to know what to say and do, and to earn our clients’ respect, trust and precious budget on that basis.
The pressure to live up to my ‘expert consultant’ persona drove some unhealthy workaholic habits for many years.
FROM MENTAL CONTROL TO NATURAL CONFIDENCE
So what changed for me? Unfulfilled by the path of career ambition and achievement, I instead started to explore more urgently the path of self-inquiry and self-realisation: to grapple with questions like: Who am I? What is my true nature? What is my life’s purpose?
During this quest, I came across a modern-day Zen Master, Dolano. She said stuff that was initially a little baffling, for example: “Out of not knowing, you will come to know” and “The mind first needs to struggle, and then it comes to be at ease with not knowing. But in not knowing, there is wisdom”. I sat with this for a while – literally – and at some point the fog cleared. I “got the joke” as Dolano also liked to say.
The pressure to know stems from a survival-related fear of helplessness, which pushes us seek control and perfection as means of protection. But it blocks the true knowing, which could also be described as our innate intelligence and intuition. The more we let go of mental control, the more we are able to access the essential qualities and resources we all possess (even if we don’t know it), which give us all the clarity, confidence and security we could ever need.
THERAPY TURNS TO ‘FELT EXPERIENCE’
These insights are now being reinforced and integrated in various ways: in therapeutic approaches and also increasingly in the business world, that bastion of logical knowledge and armoured expertise.
In the therapy context, there’s a growing emphasis on ‘felt experience’, somatic awareness and embodied healing. This often involves a stage where the client starts to connects deeply but haltingly with the physical sensations they feel in the present moment – and research has shown that this stage is a strong predictor of a successful outcome.
The Power of Focusing by Ann Weiser Cornell is a great introduction to this kind of work, either for self-inquiry or as part of a therapy process. She too highlights the importance of what she refers to as “the edge of experience”:
“Our modern culture puts a great premium on clarity. We are taught that if we can’t think or say something clearly, then it’s not important… It’s rarely acknowledged that there is a valuable kind of knowing that is vague at first and takes time to access…. That’s exactly where the wisdom is: not in what is already clear and known but in what is emerging in you, the knowing that is coming into awareness right now.”
I love this because it’s such a rewarding way to navigate through difficult experiences, dilemmas and questions. I also use it when I sometimes get this weird, weighty, portentous feeling that doesn’t immediately make sense to me. I first acknowledge the uncomfortable state of “I don’t know”; I then have patience to stay with the stuckness for a while, even to welcome it as a necessary part of the process.
And the clarity that comes after I just sit at ‘the edge of experience’ for a while is so much deeper and stronger. Something crystallises and suddenly I see what’s really going on under the surface of a tricky situation, why I (or others) have reacted to it in a particular way, and the best path forward from here.
A NEW PRESCRIPTION FOR BREAKTHROUGH IDEAS
McKinsey Consulting is a colossus of the corporate world, renowned for its multi-million dollar project fees and its hard-nosed analysis of business strategy and operations. It’s certainly not the source you’d expect for a recommendation to embrace ignorance and cultivate a deeper awareness of the present moment. But the disruptive new business environment, and the new skills and aptitudes it demands, has encouraged a far greater openness to this kind of thinking.
In an article that explores ways for senior executives to develop ‘inner agility’, McKinsey consultants argue: “To spot opportunities – and threats – in this environment, we must teach ourselves how to have a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty. This means learning how to relax at the edge of uncertainty, paying attention to subtle clues both in our environment and how we experience the moment that may inform unconventional action.”
And even more clearly as a prescription: “[L]istening – and thinking – from a place of not knowing is a critical means of encouraging the discovery of original, unexpected, breakthrough ideas.”
So “not knowing” isn’t just a route to self-awareness and situational awareness in our personal lives – it’s also a great way to find more insight, creativity and disruptive innovation in the workplace, the academic study room, the studio or the laboratory. In all these areas, it’s worth sometimes relinquishing our identity of expertise and instead cultivating a ‘beginner’s mind’, for “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few” (Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher).
‘LESS IS MORE’ IN INTEGRATED COACHING
My coaching work is another area of my life that has really benefited from embracing the power of “I don’t know”. All (good) Life Coaching asks the coach to hold the client’s agenda. It’s about empowering clients to find their own answers rather than advising them from a place of ‘I know better than you’. But as my approach has integrated learnings from Zen Coaching and, more recently, Internal Family Systems therapy, I’ve learned to give even more space to the client and their experience, while also holding space more effectively for my own feelings and concerns during a session.
From receiving coaching, therapy and training in these areas, I’ve noticed that the best practitioners have the confidence to do less, not more. They are able to simply be with periods of silence or unease – or the surfacing of extreme emotions in their clients, like anger, grief or freezing fear – rather than needing to make the moment more comfortable or to facilitate swiftly towards a resolution. They support with calm presence and empathy, which can be defined as a state of ‘absolute allowance’.
These coaches and therapists are also not afraid to say things like: “I’m feeling a bit uncertain about where to go and what to ask right now.” What a relief to say that out loud – to let go of the control and responsibility, and be OK with not knowing. Surprisingly (at the time), some of the most transformative coaching sessions I can remember giving were those in which, at some point, I felt out of my depth and under-qualified to deal with my client’s situation. There was nothing else I could do but get out of the way and drop into just being present and empathic. “Helping by not helping”, we call it. And from there came exactly what was needed.
“I don’t know” is the empty space that invites in curiosity. Not the interrogative, logical curiosity of the mind, but the curiosity of the heart. A.H. Almaas describes it in this way: “[T]he attitude of curiosity…is not goal-oriented. In other words, curiosity has no desire in it. It is a complete one-hundred-percent involvement in the present. It is, itself, the freedom and the joy. When the heart is curious, there is joy.”
Listening with a curious heart makes it much easier to digest what the other person is saying and feeling. And asking spontaneous, curious questions creates even more expansion for both client and coach. Intuition can then flow freely, guiding what to say and where to go next in the session. That’s the way clients find their natural resourcefulness and come to trust themselves as well as the coach who has supported their process. It’s the way of real transformation – powered not by knowledge but by the true knowing that lies beyond it.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO FIND NEW CLARITY, CREATIVITY AND TRANSFORMATIONAL INSIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT ME TO ARRANGE AN INTRODUCTORY SESSION OR TO ASK ANY QUESTIONS.
“Leading with Inner Agility” in McKinsey Quarterly, March 2018