Should a coach be curious or comfortable with not knowing?

quality coaching Jul 08, 2021
Giuseppe Totino MCC ICF Experienced Credentialing Mentor Coach - Blog - How can coaches show curiosity and comfort with not knowing

Why is this important?

Curiosity is a distinctive constituent of coaching and a defining quality of the coach. Indeed both the International Coaching Federation (ICF) Core Competency 2 (Embodies a Coaching Mindset) and the ICF Core Competency 5.2 (Maintains Presence) refer specifically to curiosity.

Oddly enough, though, Competency 5.5 requires a coach to feel comfortable working in a space of not knowing. 

Applicants of an ICF Credential need to show Competence in all ICF Core competencies; thus both demonstrating curiosity while feeling comfortable with not knowing. Does it sound odd? Challenging? Perhaps it is unless it becomes clear what those Competencies provide for.

So both qualities, being curious while being comfortable to work in a space of not knowing, are essential when applying for an ICF credential, especially PCC and MCC. When a coach does not show to be curious or comfortable with not knowing, it is potentially harder to receive a passing score in two key ICF Competency areas: Competency 2 and 5. Seemingly, other competency areas may be affected as well, especially when applying for the PCC or MCC credential. 


In brief: 

Being curious while showing comfort to work in the space of not knowing requires a clear understanding of the meaning of curiosity in a coaching context, primarily as provided for by the ICF Core Competencies 2 and 5. 

When establishing competence in this coaching quality while assessing a recording, ICF assessors will most probably first look at whether a session agreement has been formed. Having a well-established session agreement is critical! Assessors will then consider how the coach’s response to what the client presents is serving the client moving forward rather than serving the coach’s willingness to learn more. 

Being comfortable to work in a space of not knowing requires courage, work, and practice. A coach may also need to let go of a few assumptions about how best to serve a client’s learning and forward movement.



When applying for an ICF Credential, applicants need to show competence in Core Competencies 2 and 5. ICF Core Competency 2 provides that the coach develops and maintains, among other things, a curious mindset. Similar to Competency Area 2, Core Competency 5 (Maintains Presence), specifically sub-competency 5.2, requires a coach to “demonstrate curiosity during the coaching process.” 

But in what seems to be an antithetic sub-competency, this same Competency also requires at 5.5 that a coach “is comfortable working in a space of not knowing.” Solving this apparent dichotomy may be challenging for some coaches. It becomes especially evident when they fail to make inquiries that benefit the client’s forward movement and serve the coach’s interest to learn more instead. When this happens, coaches risk adopting coaching behaviors that produce negative evidence of competence in both Competency areas 2 and 5, potentially even in Cultivating Trust and Safety (Competency area 4) and in Evoking Awareness (Competency area 7). That can affect the amount of evidence an ICF assessor can collect for those competency areas; hence it can reduce the chances of success in a Credentialing application.

So, how can a coach show both curiosity and feel comfortable with not knowing? 



A coach needs to be at the client’s service, especially of the client’s forward movent, towards what the client wants to achieve in the coaching session (or coaching progress). To this purpose, it is imperative to have a well-defined coaching session agreement and that both the coach and the client are clear on the session goal the client intends to achieve.

Having clarity on the session goal(s), the Coach’s work, especially the coach’s inquiry, and the coach’s communication need to help the client move forward towards the agreed-upon session goals. 

Therefore, a coach needs to be conscious of what might helps the client’s forward movement (see also partnering) and avoid engaging a client in a conversation that instead serves the coach’s own need to know. Let’s examine a couple of examples to appreciate how different the situations can be.



Imagine that a client’s goal for a session is to achieve clarity about how to show up at a ‘difficult’ meeting with stakeholders where the client will be presenting a project that really cares about and for which the client seeks approval and support from the stakeholders. Imagine that the client also mentions the importance of finding self-connection during the session and maintaining self-awareness during the meeting, avoiding over-reacting.

During the coaching conversation, imagine that the client presents feeling mixed emotions about the meeting: excitement to advance the project and frustration for the failures and for the roadblocks that some stakeholders placed in the past. The client also shares that those feelings have been a pattern recently while preparing for the meeting.


Consider these two coach’s responses:

Response #1: So, I heard two feelings as you talked, and I am curious. Can you tell me more about those feelings? 

Response #2: So, I heard two feelings as you were talking an, if that’s OK with you, I would like to offer you to explore how those two feelings help you remain connected as you are thinking about how to show up at the meeting, especially to maintain self-awareness as you mentioned?


Let’s examine the two responses.

In the first case, the coach’s inquiry is probably not helping the client move forward towards the client’s goal, and the client may just revisit some awareness the client might already have (nobody knows!). For sure, the coach’s inquiry is not directly connected to the session’s goal and seems to come out more from a coach’s desire to hear what those feelings are all about. 

With the second response, however, the coach is uninterested in the content of the feelings and instead uses the client’s information to serve the client’s intentions for the session, i.e., the forward movement towards the session’s goal. In this case, the coach is clearly showing being comfortable working in a space of not knowing while showing curiosity and uses these qualities to help the client moving forward.


Are there variances among ACC, PCC, and MCC to consider?

Yes! At the time of writing (July 2021), specific ICF guidance is there for MCC and PCC level coaching and credentialing. In summary, here is what they provide:


  • For the PCC Coach: (2020 PCC Markers): Competency 2: Embodying a coaching mindset that is open, curious, flexible, and client-centered. Competency 5 - Marker 4: 5.4: Coach demonstrates curiosity to learn more about the client.


  • For the MCC Coach (Minimum skills requirements):
    - Competency 2: At an MCC level, the minimum standard of skill that must be demonstrated to receive a passing score for establishing trust and intimacy with the client is that the coach demonstrates...comfortableness with not knowing as a state to expand awareness in.
    - Competency 4: [Coach] Is open to not knowing and takes risks...The coach evidences a complete curiosity that is undiluted by a need to perform. 
    - Competency 6: The coach’s questions are fully based in curiosity.
    - Competency 8: At an MCC level, the minimum standard of skill that must be demonstrated to receive a passing score for creating awareness is that...the coach’s way of being is consistently curious, the coach is willing to not know...


The emphasis is mine to show how expansive this skill is as the level of experience grows. It also reflects the differing level of evidence an ICF Assessor expects to collect when assessing it.


In earlier blogs, we examined how a coach can freely communicate and the relationship between Core Competency 2 (Mindset) and other competency areas. Here we cover another key quality of being a coach: being curious. We have established how a coach can be curious while being comfortable with not knowing. 


In our next blog post, we will explore what other competency areas require a coach to be skilled in.

Reference Material: 2019 ICF Core Competencies, 2020 PCC Markers, ICF Minimum Skills Requirements


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