At the mention of the word intuition, ideas come to mind such as “gut-feeling”, knowing something without understanding why, acting on instinct, realizing when something is wrong because it “just doesn’t feel right”, and so on. The last decade or so has seen intuition creeping more and more into the language of business and managerial decision-making models, challenging the traditional rational-analytical approaches. In contrast, intuition has also become virtually synonymous with many spiritual beliefs and practices, and can be found generously peppered throughout the literature on popular psychology and new-age philosophies. The broadness of intuition makes it both appealing as a universal terminology, and at the same time troublesome to define and investigate. The extent to which intuition plays a part in coaching can be seen in relation to the coaching competencies, as set out by the International Coach Federation. This paper will explore some of the research on intuition and attempt to relate it to the coaching process in the context of the ICF competencies.
Competency no. 2: Establishing the Coaching Agreement
The first competency in which intuition can be said to play a role is the second one of establishing the coaching agreement. This is defined by the ICF as the ability to understand what is required in the specific coaching interaction and to come to agreement with the prospective client about the coaching process. During the first introductory or trial session with the client the coach must determine whether there is an effective match. This decision must be made on the basis of the limited information gained during the session, and the coach will need to listen to the signals of their own intuition. The coach will have to decide if this client is compatible in terms of alignment with the coach’s orientation, coaching niche and previous experience.
Given the relatively short time of the trial session much of these judgments will likely take place at a non-conscious level by the coach, with more experienced coaches arriving at a decision more quickly and intuitively than less experienced coaches. In a study of intuition in managerial decision-making Dane & Pratt (2007) point out that intuition involves decisions made without conscious analysis. Relating their research to psychological studies they argue that there is a process of non-conscious pattern recognition involved with simple cognitive structures, which enables a person to pick up any “warning signals”. Furthermore this process also involves more complex cognitive structures linked to long-term memory, allowing previous experience to enhance the functioning of intuition. This is consistent with the conclusions of Dreyfus & Dreyfus (1986) who looked at the use of intuition in the context of industrial engineers and found that experienced professionals are more likely to use intuition, whilst inexperienced ones are more likely to resort to more formal and rational approaches to make a decision.
Another feature of establishing the coaching agreement involves the coach explaining their particular approach and openly enquiring if the client would feel comfortable with that. In 2009 Mavor carried out a study of 14 experienced executive coaches in which she interviewed them regarding their use of intuition in coaching. She reports that coaches found intuition to be more powerful when they openly contracted with clients in the initial session that it would be used along the way. In a sense this gives coaches permission from the client which, together with the internal permission of acknowledging intuition as part of their skill set, appears to create better conditions for intuition to be more effective.
Competency no. 3: Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client
Establishing trust and intimacy with the client is essential for a successful coaching partnership, and facilitates the process in many ways. Mavor (2009) describes how coaches who are aware of using intuition report the need for creating this intimate relationship, and that having a good rapport is conducive to the manifestation of intuition in the coaching process. This is consistent with the findings of others (Murray, 2004) that focused attention is more intense when you have a close rapport with someone. This in turn facilitates non-conscious processing of subliminal signals in voice and body language.
Competency no. 4: Coaching Presence
Coaching presence is defined as the ability to be fully conscious and to create a spontaneous relationship with the client. The coach needs to be fully present in the moment to be able to know when to apply appropriate coaching strategies, confidently shifting perspectives and experimenting with new possibilities. This competency is fundamental to the coaching process and is over-arching in its scope, being intertwined with many of the other ICF competencies. The ability to access intuition and trust one’s own inner knowing is of great value when having to move in the moment with the client.
In his detailed review of the characteristics of intuition Kautz (2003) points out that the conscious direction of the attention can lead to more awareness of intuition. It follows that the more a coach is able to direct their attention and maintain an effective coaching presence, then the more they are able to use intuition in the coaching process.
Mavor (2009) found from her study of experienced coaches that intuition is employed to a large extent in relation to coaching presence. Her results show that coaches used intuition to know when to speak and when to stay silent, in identifying patterns, and in challenging the client’s perspectives. The coaches in the study also described how they used intuition to be bold with coaching strategies, sometimes taking risks and pushing back boundaries both for the coach and the client.
In another related aspect of coaching presence Mavor also found that coaches reported “listening” to their own physical sensations, such as feelings in the stomach, chest, prickly head etc. These indicators helped them know what their intuition was telling them.
The role the body plays in intuition has been the focus of much research, due to the relatively easy methods available for measuring physiological phenomena. For example Bechara et al (1997) carried out an interesting study in which participants had to play a game involving risk but without knowing the rules. They found that participants generated significant skin conductance responses before engaging in higher risks even though they were not consciously aware of the higher risk. Other researchers have also suggested a link between intuition and physiological response; Bastik (1982) directly ties intuition with “body knowledge”, and Agor (1986) and Hayashi (2001) link the use of intuition with specific “body cues”.