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The “I Don’t Know” Client Response

By Sonny Wong

Career counselling is the art of examining clients’ presenting issues and applying our counselling techniques. Clients come to us during their transitional periods, such as: school to work, employment loss or career changes – these stages can be disruptive to their career identity development. Recently, in a session that I was leading with career practitioners, one participant asked me: “What do I do when I encounter a client who responds to my queries with – I don’t know.”? For some clients, the immediate response to our questions is the typical “I don’t know.” As career practitioners, what is our personal/professional approach to helping clients cope with life/career ambiguities?

My 20 years’ experience has led me to have faith in my clients’ inner resources as their fuel to generating their own solutions. Chances are it may not be the first time they have encountered a crisis and have overcome it. This means that when they respond to me with “I don’t know” – I take the stance that they do know. Let me process this point with you by posing some reflection questions: Do you prefer to explore what the client doesn’t know or what he/she does know about him/herself? Do you believe that the client possesses internal resources or do they need your supportive resources? Do you see that the client as an unemployed person or someone who is seeking information? Have you ever wondered why clients tell the same self-narrative repeatedly? Depending on how you answer these questions – it may shine light to how you conduct your sessions with clients leading them out of their anxious state.

Research has shown that clients’ success is based on the therapeutic alliance established by the counsellor/client rather than the interventions. Psychologists have discovered that there is a directional relationship between individual’s level of happiness and success. When we encounter someone who has lost their significant other – we often ask him/her, “What do you need” – in hopes to lift their mood. When we encounter someone who has lost their job – we may imply, “Don’t worry – network and go online.” In both cases, there is a grieving process which requires a humanistic approach to engaging in one’s behaviours toward healing. However, in the latter, we may be prescriptive in our statements when responding to clients’ suffering.

Technological improvements have allowed much of our work to be efficient but transactional. Today’s career work evolves around querying clients’ job search skills, personal branding capabilities, and explaining standardized career assessments profiles. Therefore, is it not understandable that the clients respond to us with the “I don’t know?” We are the one demonstrating our expertise and signaling to them that we do know about their issues. When/how do we create space for our clients to flex their self-awareness, strengths and capabilities to move themselves out of their ambiguous/scary transitional periods? More importantly, when do we examine our own “I don’t know” when working with clients?

Some career practitioners are going back to the basics – which is – establishing the humanistic foundation between counsellor and client. They have further developed their counselling skills to explore with their clients the specific personal influences which cultivate healthy career identity development. Others have integrated therapeutic modalities within career counselling to address client’s socio-emotional barriers to meaningful employment. Many career practitioners have reported that they treat their clients with heightened curiosity, forming partnerships to co-construct meaning and clarify/strive for goals. These approaches lead clients to flourish in their private and public spheres. In turn, these career practitioners themselves report that they notice an increase in their own well-being from their client engagement.

Join Sonny for his pre-conference workshop “Deconstructing Clients” Career Anxiety by Creating Positive Narratives & Co-Constructed Plans” on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at the Cannexus National Career Development Conference in Ottawa.



Sonny Wong, is a Career Counsellor – Designated Professional Counsellor at Ryerson University. He has 16 years of experience that span the areas of counselling, training, research and conference presentations, holds a MEd with a focus on Work and Career from the University of Toronto – OISE and is a good standing member of OACCPP – Ontario Association of Consultants, Counsellors, Psychometrics and Psychotherapists.

Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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