Three Words Every Life Coach Has To Get Used To

There is a massive misconception amongst some members of the public about Life Coaching.

In fact it goes deeper than that.

Rather worryingly, it’s a also a view adopted by some Life Coaches, and one that can get them into a lot of trouble if they don’t ditch it.

It’s the belief by either the client or the coach that the coach should have all the answers. That the coach should be able to suggest what is right for a client.

Who Do You Know Best In The World?

Think about the person that you know best in your life and I will show you somebody that you know less than 50% about.

Yet parents, spouses, friends and even some Life Coaches think they are perfectly well suited to advise people how to spend their lives.

So with more than half the information missing and after never having spent one moment in that persons head they feel qualified and quite often are eager, to tell them what to do.

The reality is we are all guessing when we think we know what’s right for another person.

How can it be any otherwise when we have a different belief system, set of core values and life experiences?

I had a client ask me only very recently if she thought she should take a job she had been offered?

I responded, “I don’t know” and went on to say it wasn’t something I could advise on.

I explained my job was to help her think differently about her situation by asking insightful questions, not to tell her what I would do in her situation.

Because let’s face it, that is what I would have been doing. Simply saying what I would do in such a circumstance.

That is the antithesis of good coaching.

When I work one-on-one with other Life Coaches I will indeed offer advice about all sorts of different topics, because for the most part I have been hired in as much of a consultancy role as a Life Coach.

However, I will not advise somebody to become a Life Coach in the first place.

Three Words Every Life Coach Has To Get Used To

If I get asked the question of whether I think a client should segue into a career in coaching, I’ll use the same three words as I did with the lady recently, “I don’t know”.

You have to be comfortable and relaxed in the knowledge that you don’t know what is right for your client, because you don’t.

Best-selling author James Altucher explains that when you are interviewed on news and/or current affairs programs for the TV, the cardinal sin is to respond to a question with, “I don’t know”.

It can kill the flow of the program. After all, who on earth hires somebody to come on as an expert who doesn’t know the answer to the questions?

But we don’t perform on TV, we haven’t a duty to be entertaining and we don’t earn respect by pretending we are experts in anything other than coaching.

Do you ever have trouble biting your tongue when you feel you know what is right for a client. I know there have been occasions when I struggled, especially in my earlier years. Let me know in the comments.


  1. Hi Tim,

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Amazing post.

    I also think that when you rush in with an answer, you take the “burden” off of the client to think through on their own how they really feel. By letting “I don’t know” sit in the air, they can feel supported thinking (and feeling) their way through the situation in your presence. Maybe following up with “tell me more about your instincts on the matter…” could be good.


  2. Often times I have said to the client when asked to give advise, “I don’t know” and I quickly follow through with “let’s figure this out”. This gives me an opportunity to do a brainstorming exercise, on ideas that the client may have on the “why’s” and “why not’s” to pursue a particular idea. If I find that they are stuck I rephrase whatever idea they had already suggested in order to motivate their thought process.


  3. Barb

    I have to agree with you Tim, although I know I have rushed the process at times…it is wise to check in with myself if I am growing weary of the client’s process.

    • Tim Brownson

      Impetuosity is possibly my biggest sin in coaching. I’m waaaaaay better now then when I started 10 years ago, but it’s still there lurking if I don’t keep my guard up.

  4. Fabulous post Tim. I think many people have the mistaken belief that life coaches advise people how to live their lives. I hope this myth will soon be dispelled. A good life coach should guide the client to find their own answers. I concur with what Katherine said as well. I often follow up “I don’t know” with “What do you think?”. Very annoying for many clients I know but my job is to help them dig deeper to find out.

    • Tim Brownson

      Yeh, let’s start a campaign to rid them of this dumb notion!

      You do the US and I’ll pick up the rest of the world.

  5. I couldn’t agree more Tim – though as you say, it can be hard not to slip into this arrogant “nanny knows best” trap! I find it helpful to add after “I don’t know” something like “what do you think?” This approach I think is both respectful i.e. I assume they know what is best for them and makes them take responsibility for solving their problem.

  6. Tim Brownson

    Yep, and if they say “I don’t know” follow up with, “If you did know what would you think” 😉

  7. Michael Wecke

    Nice post, Tim!

    With many years in Human Resources Management and on the side job coaching, I have often had the urge to “tell’ someone the solution to their problem. Having been presented with so many scenarios that are similar in nature, it is “a given” that such and such an action should get the client off the hook, because it “seems so logical”. Way off the mark!

    To provide a “solution” as a Coach really results in the client being deprived of their own creative solution seeking. I am with Sonia (comment above). “I don’t know” followed by “what do you think” or at times follow up with “what else would you consider as being important”? I learned the technique (what do you think) many years ago, when being trained as a part-time Life Line Counsellor. I am also aware that this approach can infuriate a client, but hey – simply put – as a Coach I’m not the road sign that says go left or right. I am the “stirrer of grey matter”. I prod and ask, prod and ask…Another question I used was “if your current plan doesn’t work, what alternatives would you consider”?

    • Tim Brownson

      I actually don’t think it infuriates clients as much as you may presume Michael. In fact if you’re in a high state of rapport you can get away with pretty much anything without pissing off a client.

  8. Tumara Jones

    Hello , I’m not a Life Coach but I really would like to be one I’m in High School and I plan on furthering my Education to become a Life Coach any advice on what I can do right now to prepare or any Educational courses I can take after or during High School … Thank you my email address is please contact me ..