This is a thought-provoking article, on an intriguing subject – the potential links between intuition and coaching. As human beings, we all use intuition to varying degrees. The same, argues Mavor, can be said about our role as coaches. She acknowledges, however, that apart from a trickle of studies, very little research has been undertaken on this subject.
But what do we mean by intuition? There is, as yet, no universally accepted definition. Mavor presents a number of alternative perspectives. Dane and Pratt (2007: 40) for example, regard intuitions as ‘affectively charged judgements that arise through rapid, nonconscious, and holistic associations’. Hence, intuition contains features such as: ‘gut feelings or gut instincts’; speed – they arise rapidly; nonconscious information processing; and holistic associations including patterns, structures or schemas held in long-term memory.
The Mavor study used semi-structured interviews with 14 experienced executive coaches (8 males and 6 females) with an average of 14.5 years experience as a coach. The coaches were asked to report retrospectively on intuitive experiences in either one-to-one or group coaching. A series of 15 broad questions, elicited from the literature on intuition, were posed, each interview lasting approximately two hours.
The findings suggest that intuition is, indeed, very much present in coaching conversations. One coach, for example, talked about ‘out of the blue’ experience. The intuition ‘came from nowhere’. But it cannot be deliberately ‘called up’. Looking for it makes it difficult to find. The key seems to be being open and maintaining a ‘soft focus’, allowing intuition to give you messages and clues.
Intuition is more likely to be accessed if the coach has self-belief and self-confidence in what they do. But it is also essential that the coach gets themselves in the right physical, mental and emotional state to help them access and apply their intuition. This includes the coach’s:
- Attention to their own well-being
- The preparation they undertake before the coaching session
- The rituals or routines they use before the session to get into ‘the zone’
- Their ability to stay present and focused during the session
Preparation for a session depends on the individual coach. Some would read through the notes from previous sessions; others would look through coaching models or frameworks. The key, however, was letting go of analytical thoughts, of getting ‘grounded’ and quieting the mind. It meant being congruent, receptive, fresh, attentive and calm. This helps to develop the vital ingredient of rapport which allows the coaching conversation to access deeper levels of communication and beliefs, attitudes, emotions and feelings. Yet it also means having a level of detachment and objectiveness in accessing and applying intuition, and to present an observation as an offering as opposed to a profound truth. As one coach said, it means being “willing to put it out there and willing to get it wrong”. This is not a celebration of ignorance. As one coach commented, “you have to know your stuff”. Hence, intuition is mainly used by more experienced coaches. This is because they operate at an unconscious competence level. Experience enables coaches to chunk information so that they can store and retrieve it easily (Hayashi 2001).
It would be wrong to read too much into what is, at best, a small scale study. However, the findings here on intuition in coaching, seem largely consistent with much of the general literature on intuition. The study raises some important themes that are certainly worthy of further exploration.
Dane, E., and Pratt, M. (2007) Exploring intuition and its role in managerial decision-making, Academy of Management Review, 32, 33-54.
Hayashi, A.M. (2001) When to trust your gut. Harvard Business Review at Large, Feb, 59-65.