“I DON’T’ KNOW”—THE THREE MOST COMMON WORDS SPOKEN IN THERAPY©

Clifton Mitchell, Ph.D.

I DON’T’ KNOW

“When struggling with a client, you often think you are missing some complex skill you have not learned; in actuality, you have somehow failed to apply a fundamental skill.” Scott D. Miller

On any given day there are clients sitting in therapists’ offices throughout the country. Likely, the three most common words spoken by clients in all of these sessions are, “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, too many therapists are inadequately trained in the management of the “I don’t know” (IDK) response and incorrectly view the response as a form of resistance. Misperceiving the IDK response as resistance often leads to therapists’ responses that further fuel the stuckness of the client and the perceived resistance. This most frequently occurs in one of two ways.

The first is that therapists push too hard to break through the momentary impasse. They too often assume that clients do know the answer to their question and are just refusing to speak it. This results in clients pushing back and digging into their position of not knowing. As a result, “resistance” that was not present initially is now created and amplified by therapists’ actions of too aggressively seeking or insisting on an answer. This is a poor technique likely fueled by a bit of countertransference.

The second way therapists sometimes respond to the IDK answer is that they change the subject and move the conversation to a place that they think they will be able to get the answer or movement of some sort. Problems arise in this instance because, rather than staying with clients’ not-knowing state and respectfully exploring the meaning behind it, they have avoided addressing the IDK response at all. Both approaches are inadequate and thwart the therapeutic process. “I don’t know” responses are important, momentary junctures in the therapeutic dialogue and successful therapeutic outcomes are highly dependent on adequately processing through the internal struggles occurring within clients at these junctures.

The IDK response is so common I am surprised that there is not more written about it and about how to respond in a manner that gently and deferentially moves clients through this point in the therapeutic conversation. I have studied, written, and lectured about the IDK response for more than 15 years. From my studies, I have come to a number of conclusions, many of which are contrary to common perceptions.

To begin with, IDK is rarely an indication of resistance; rather, it
is a genuine response to the current turmoil and internal state clients are experiencing. “I don’t know” is not typically a haphazard, flippant response to irritate therapists and such ideas only serve to create more perceived resistance. There is a reason clients respond with IDK. Once elicited, the therapist’s job is to explore and understand this reason. I have also learned that the management of the IDK response is rather easy once it is studied and understood, and therapists learn to be comfortable in its presence. Below are some ideas and techniques regarding the management of this oh-so-common response.

The first is that therapists must realize and take responsibility for their part in provoking the response from clients. Likewise, they must change their way of responding to lessen the possibility of eliciting the response. “I don’t know” responses only occur in the context of a conversation of which therapists are co-creators. Frequently, the IDK response is a result of a poorly worded question asked by therapists who employ question-laden dialogues that are of debatable therapeutic value. Thus, if you are tired of hearing IDK limit the number of questions you ask. Instead, increase your use of empathy. If this sounds like a lesson out of your counseling 101 class, you’re right. Yet, we often forget the basics and wonder why we are struggling so with clients.

The second is that, once prompted, the secret to responding to IDK is to respond to the meaning behind the response and not the surface response itself. I have learned that there are thousands of personal meanings encapsulated in IDK responses. Clients who have contradictory, conflicting internal answers to questions or who are attempting to avoid facing their internal struggles or pain from the past often respond with IDK. Similarly, a client may respond with IDK to defend the self or to avoid a truthful answer that will arouse controversy they prefer to avoid. There are thousands of personal meanings to the IDK response. Rather than press for answers to questions, therapists are advised to delve into and ferret out these meanings with clients. Once the meaning behind the IDK response is discovered and clarified, it is much easier to address the specific concerns disguised in the IDK. Therapy is the process of grasping, exploring, and processing these internal dynamics.

While on the subject, the safest response to IDK is to respect and honor the “not knowing” state of the client and empathize with the difficulties clients are experiencing as they search for an answer. For example, you might respond with something like, “At this moment, you are a bit stumped as you search for an answer. This is a difficult situation to sort out.” Simple delivery of an empathic comment that moves to a position of understanding with what the client may be experiencing. Such therapist responses circumvent getting into a you-push-they-push-back, adversarial dialogue. In my experience, this approach moves as much as 60-70% of clients beyond the current IDK state toward a deeper exploration of struggles. Yet, this requires that therapists learn to be comfortable sitting with the client in a “not knowing” state for as long as is needed, an essential ingredient to managing IDK responses. The more comfortable therapists can be in the presence of the “not knowing” state, the easier it is for therapists to focus on the critical steps to managing it.

Many times when asking questions, therapists can intuitively hear in their mind and anticipate that an IDK response will follow. Most therapists have had this experience. You are in the middle of the question and you just know the client is going to respond with an IDK. Such insights on the part of the therapist should be taken as a sign that the question being asked is not therapeutically appropriate at the moment. Your understanding of the client is telling you that the client is not at a place where he/she has a beneficial response. When this occurs, I suggest you immediately stop your questioning–in the middle of your sentence if necessary. It’s apparently not going to work; so, don’t do it!

Instead, signal your client not to respond with some hand waving paralanguage. Then, assess and cultivate the empathic response you would ideally deliver had the client responded with IDK and say that in place of your question. From there you move the dialogue forward from your empathic response. There is no need to hide your struggle to adjust your response style. Your open display of your efforts to shift the dialogue style sends a signal to the client’s unconscious that you are working hard to move into a position of understanding and away from a position of opposition. I am convinced that clients appreciate experiencing your efforts to adjust and respond in an understanding manner. This particular technique is highly successful when practiced.

Another approach to eliciting answers after an IDK response has been given is to figuratively bring a third person into the room and ascertain what he/she may say regarding the unknown information. One way to do this is to inquire if the client has friends who are familiar with his or her situation. Many times clients do have such friends and these friends have opinions and may offer insights.
If this is the case, you simply ask what the client hears his or her friends saying in response to your question. This technique often results in the client providing insights that he or she may feel reluctant to present were it coming directly from his or herself. Obviously, the use of this technique is predicated on what you know about clients, their situation, and their friends. Be aware that the friends’ responses may not be useful or worthy. A discussion of benefits and drawbacks may be needed.

By eliciting the response of a third party who is not present, any opposition can be framed as being against him/her and not the therapist. Thus, the therapeutic tension is between the client and an imaginary person in the room. The advantage of this approach is that it does not place the therapeutic tension between you and the client and it creates an environment where ideas are more readily expressed.

The more I study the IDK response the more I am convinced that when it is fully understood, it will not be perceived as resistance. Rather, it is simply a reflection of the confusion and internal struggles the client is experiencing. In this sense, the IDK response should be thought of as a doorway into the very place the therapeutic conversation needs to move in order to be effective. Many foundational struggles clients face can be discovered by slowing the pace and discovering the meaning behind IDK responses.

I have spent many hours contemplating this linguistic creature. I now realize that when a human being says “I don’t know”, he/she is in one of the most human of all experiences. When you think about it, much of life is spent in a state of “not knowing.” As therapists, we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of conceptualizing one of most natural states of living as resistance.

Reference Provided Upon Request

Clifton Mitchell, Ph.D., is an international clinical trainer, keynote speaker, and the author of Effective Techniques for Dealing with Highly Resistant Clients. For the past 15 years he has trained thousands of mental health professionals on methods of managing resistance in therapy. He also created The Legal and Ethical Game Show Challenge, the only legal and ethical training utilizing a game show format. He is currently an Emeritus Professor in counseling at East Tennessee State University where he received the teacher of the year award in 2002. cliftmitch@comcast.net
www.cliftonmitchell.com.