Working from a place of unknowing versus knowing by Doug Montgomery & Gary Armstrong


As human beings we are amazing meaning making machines; we strive to know and to understand what is going on and we gather evidence that supports our view of the world.  We try to make sense of the complexities and chaos of the world within us and around us. We are driven to want to know why, yet I have recently realised something important about not knowing.

From my experiences, not knowing can exist in at least two states:

  1. As a state of acquiring; to be in a vacuum that needs to suck in the “knowing”.

  2. As a state of being unknowing; accepted for what it is without needing to change it.

 As a student, a scientist, a manager, a researcher, a leader, I have spent a lifetime treating ‘not knowing’ as a vacuum that needs to be filled by,

  • Sucking in possible awareness and solution,  

  • Trying to make sense of the situation,

  • Trying to create order out of chaos and constancy out of uncertainty. 

I have often placed a structure, a “grid of knowing” across chaos, and been pleased with myself, only to find that the chaos, oozes through the gaps and leaks out at the edges of my notional “grid of knowing”.

“Letting go of needing to know”

As a coach I started to hear and read about the idea of “letting go of needing to know”, I thought I understood it.  I started to try to put aside my problem-solving tools and attitude as part of my practice. This was both powerful and difficult for me because there were lots of critical self-judgements about what I should be doing and should be thinking along the way. It helped me be aware of, and recognise, how I was using not knowing in my early coaching practice.

When I trained as a coach supervisor I started to understand and experience what not knowing as the second state feels like – the acceptance of unknowing as just the way it is. This learning came partly from the teaching of Otto Scharmer’s Theory “U” (Scharmer, 2007) and partly from practicing with Shirley and Nathalie and others on the course.

Otto Scharmer describes a process of letting go of what we know and think we know as we descend one side of a “U” to reach the bottom of the “U” where we have let go of knowing and come to a place of unknowingness where we sit and let whatever is going to emerge show itself.   As we climb the other leg of the “U” we ask what the meaning of what has emerged is for us and start to reflect on how we might use it.

It's through our practice sessions we sought to achieve a state of simple acceptance of what is without needing to change it. Simply being with the state of unknowing and being with each other are all connected through the quality of the relationships.

Connecting not knowing to relationships in coaching and supervision

We all know that coaching and supervision are relational activities; as coach and coachee, or supervisor and supervisee, we sit together and talk.  A relationship has been created, and developed – right? And if the “relationship” is the vessel in which the work of coaching and supervision get done; then what do we need to do to create that vessel and make it deep enough and strong enough to hold the work?

 The English Oxford living dictionaries defines each of the word as follows:

Relationship (noun), the way in which two or more people or things are connected, or a state of being connected.

Knowing (noun), the state of being aware or informed.

Unknowing/ Not knowing (noun), the state of being unaware or un-informed.

 A convenient starting place to both explore and examine how this vessel is created (relationship) and sustained (not knowing) is at a chemistry meeting, the first time a client will meet and decide whether they want to work with the coach. We have all had chemistry meetings, and from that decided whether to work together.  For example, we may have contracted what the client wants and how we will work together.  The contract may cover the 3 “P”s (Practical, Professional and Personal) or the 5 “P”s (Purpose, Practical, Professional, Perceptual and Psychological)  {Patti Stevens personal communication and Carroll and Gilbert 2005}. That will create the relationship – right? Or is that enough to know that we’ve created the necessary relationship for the work?

To date, a lot of good work gets done within the framework outlined above – so I’m not knocking it. I am just beginning to realise that there is more to it. I am getting really interested in,

  • What “relationships” in coaching and supervision really mean? and

  • How do I create a deep, safe, vessel in which assumptions and prior beliefs can be replaced by a state of “unknowing” and from which creativity and new awareness emerge in service of the client?

My vessel: through relationships to not knowing

Relationships create space for us both to let go of our assumptions and preconceived notions about each other, about ourselves and about situations.   By creating the three necessary and sufficient conditions for human growth described by Carl Rogers (1957) – empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard, I can invite my coachee and supervisee to join me in a relationship in which we can meet where we are both in that place of unknowing.  Not knowing where the conversation will take us and not knowing what will emerge or how it will be useful.  This I have found requires me to really trust myself to let go of knowing and let go of needing to know, and to trust that the relationship will support the journey.

Let me give you an example from my supervision practice of how I and a supervisee, Gary, created a deep, safe vessel for not knowing by establishing relationship.    

The Supervisor’s Tale:

In a 1:1 supervision session with Gary, a new coach client, we were able to create such a relationship. We have similar corporate histories having worked for the same company and been trained there as internal coaches. I have since left the company and set up my practice outside. I was heavily involved with the internal coaching program and my contribution and journey are quite widely known amongst the internal coaches of my era. And so, this client and I have a lot in common.

When we met I started by asking him to tell me about himself and how he became a coach.   He started by saying how he knew of me and was excited and slightly daunted to be supervised by me because I am a “Name” in coaching.

Well, what a start!  

My ego was swelling – me a “Name” in coaching – how marvellous! And at the same time, I was shrieking internally – No I’m not – don’t say that, I’ll be found out all too quickly!  It would have been easy for me to either step up onto the pedestal he seemed to have placed me on and act the guru/expert “Name” thing.   Or, it would have been easy to discount myself; to deny what I had contributed to coaching at my old company and to say I was lucky to be in that role, had great people to work with me, etc. etc. in other words to play small.  

What I found myself doing, was to acknowledge that I made a meaningful contribution while I was there, and that in the grand scheme of coaching it was quite focussed to one time and place, and that in that time and place it was fun to do and left a mark.   I also explained that I didn’t consider myself a “Name” in coaching and am only a few pages ahead of my client in the coaching journey book.

I then asked him again about his story to becoming a coach and what coaching meant to him. His passion shone through and I fed back some of this and other strengths and values I was hearing to him. I then shared my own journey and interests. Through this sharing and listening, we were able to let go of many assumptions about each other and replace them with some reality before moving onto what he wanted from the session.

In the session, largely I believe because we had let go of the façade and met as people in a congruent, empathetic manner we were able to sit for a while in a place of not knowing where his question for the session would take us, and let the possibilities emerge from a place of open heartedness and acceptance of our own vulnerabilities to not knowing.

What emerged was a new insight into who my client is as a coach, his motivation for working with his particular client group and that he is there to walk alongside them as they discover who they are in the world.

By making contact before we started to contract the session we joined in a congruent, empathetic, non-judgemental relationship which was the vessel in which the work happened.

Usually in these blogs, we hear the writer’s (coach or supervisior) account and learnings from their experience.  In a departure from this norm, I invited my client that day to share their own experience of the session in this blog, here is Gary’s account. 

The Coach’s Tale:

I was delighted when Doug asked me to contribute to this blog as it has allowed me to reflect even more deeply on what was already a significant supervision that was already full of meaning.

I have always been drawn to coaching because it’s one of the few spaces where I feel real connection takes place in my life, something which I cherish for its own sake.  When I sense that connection forming, with clients, supervisors or fellow coaches I consciously lean into it as much as I can.  This is exactly what happened with Doug as we set about co-creating the ideal container for our work: uncluttered, power free, authentic, non-judgemental and free from nuance.  A place where I was happy to share and be fully seen.

I can sometimes feel intimidated by people I regard as more senior and possessing greater “wisdom” than me, so acknowledging how I perceived Doug’s status was an intentional act of vulnerability to create the relationship; his humble acceptance of his standing was critical to forming the ideal connection – making contact before starting to contract.

This connection then allowed us to create a truly safe space for me to explore whatever came up as we ventured forth.  Doug conveyed calmness and kindness throughout and interestingly never looked like he was in a state of not knowing.  Some insights emerged in the moment such as my relationship with perfection and learning to do just enough – even when I want to do “just enough”, I want to do it perfectly!  Other insights grew in the weeks afterward; I love to volunteer to coach local A-level students partly as an act of personal healing to fill a gap that I feel based on memories of my life at a similar age.

Qualities from working from a place of relationship and not knowing

Bringing together all the elements needed in a vessel is powerful, and this was all made possible by the nature of the new relationship that formed in that session.  If the first few moments of our supervision were a metaphorical handshake, it was not brief, perfunctory and devoid of meaning.  It was with intention, personal warmth and an intention to establish a meaningful relationship.

Sustaining this connection is what made the work possible, meaningful, and joyous.

Carroll M, and Gilbert, M,C. (2005) On being a supervisee; creating learning partnerships. Vukani Publishing.  Page 36-39
Rogers, C.R., (1957) The necessary and sufficient conditions of psychotherapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 21(2) 95-103
Scharmer, C.O., (2007) Theory U: leading from the emerging future as it emerges. The Social Technology of Presencing, Cambridge, M.A. SoL Press
English Oxford living dictionaries:


Connect with Doug Montgomery via tgc The Bloggers and Gary Armstrong

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Doug Montgomery (PhD, APECS, ICF PCC) is an executive coach, supervisor, coach training facilitator, mentor coach and ILM coaching and mentoring tutor. Over 28 years in pharmaceutical R&D at GlaxoSmithKline, he developed his leadership skills in increasingly senior roles. Doug’s coach training started while at GSK and led to becoming a Director of Coaching at GSK’s Coaching Centre of Excellence. After leaving GSK he set up Elmbank Coaching to fulfil his passion for coaching and supporting the personal and professional development of others, developing coaches and training leaders who want to adopt a coaching approach in their work and life.


Gary is a passionate people development professional currently working at GlaxoSmithKline in Global HR and the CEO’s Office.  After a rewarding career in international management consulting, Gary discovered his true vocation in coaching and leadership development.  He designs and delivers leadership development experiences and works as an in-house coach at GSK to a wide range of people from front line leaders to senior executives.  He also works as development consultant for Church of England clergy and coaches A-level students in local schools.  Gary loves to help people discover who they are, what they want in life and how they can make it happen.

Gary has a Master in Economics from Cambridge University, a post graduate certificate in Organisation Development from the NTL Institute UK and is a Corporate Affiliate Member of APECS.  He draws energy and inspiration from his wonderful family and spending time outdoors.  In his spare time he competes for Great Britain in age-group cycling & running events.