Artful coaching is an intuitive dance. But what is intuition and where does it come from? What do we need to be aware of? In the first of a two-part series, Dr Peter Jackson and Carmel O’Connell explain the background to an empirical study into coaches’ use of intuition in executive coaching.

We’re all aware as practitioners that we bring something human to the coaching relationship. That, whatever our style of practice, it’s more than a logical sequence of steps – it’s a collaborative dance of ideas, energy, feelings, images.

We’re aware that every client and every one of their sessions is different, bringing its own unique surprises and opportunities. This is precisely what makes it interesting and special: a kind of creativity in the moment.

Interestingly, a lot of coach training focuses on the procedural and mechanical skills involved (as does accreditation, as colleagues have highlighted previously in this column – Lawton-Smith, 2015; and see Bachkirova & Lawton-Smith, 2015, for a more extensive discussion). What, then, is the dance, and how do we learn it?

A hunch, something ‘bubbling up’, a gut feel: it is interesting that we tend to refer to intuition with quite physical language. There’s a sense that it’s not of the brain, but from somewhere else. Dane and Pratt (2007, p40) describe intuitions as being “affectively-charged judgments that arise through rapid, nonconscious, and holistic associations”.

This description differentiates intuition from other decision-making processes (eg, insight and rational approaches) and it suggests that there’s no conscious awareness of the knowledge source when it occurs, other than “somatic awareness which influences decision choices” (Hodgkinson et al, 2008, p3).

This is not to say that it may not be rationally justified afterwards, but the basis upon which an intuitive judgement is made is obscured in the unconscious (Dane & Pratt, 2007; Hodgkinson et al, 2008).

There’s a tradition of constructivist theories of learning (eg, Kolb, 1984; Schön, 1991) that emphasises the process of honing explicit knowledge through practice. Where this transformed knowledge sits and how it is accessed is not clear. Other theorists have filled this gap by looking at the role of emotion. Haidt (2001) asserts that where there is an uncertainty, affect is the primary driver behind our decisions and moral judgements, while our rationality works as a reasoning after the fact: a phenomenon he describes as the ‘rational tail’ wagged by the ‘emotional dog’. Damasio (1994) has considered in detail the interaction of rational and emotional brain functions in the everyday human process of making sense and communicating with others.

What emerges from these perspectives is that we are in some sense more of our ‘self’ than the rational. This holistic, and slightly mysterious, engagement then requires both care and caution. Many students of coaching and of coaching supervision will have experienced Tatiana Bachkirova’s useful exercise in exploring what kind of ‘tool’ they represent in their coaching, and importantly, how best to care for it (Bachkirova, 2016).

Furthermore, the ‘felt-sense’ (Gendlin, 2003) by definition evades our attention. Gendlin argues that psychotherapists’ pursuit of a linguistic to-ing and fro-ing with the client does not get to the heart of their experience (Gendlin, 1962, p39). It’s no surprise that Gendlin’s concepts of ‘felt-sense’ and the ‘pre-conceptual’ are foundational in some psychotherapy trainings!

If this creativity is out of awareness, could we not at any time be playing out all sorts of personal dramas? How do we know, for example, whether we are acting on a brilliant intuition, or an ugly prejudice? We’d be wise to attend through reflection and supervision to the tricks that can be played on us by the process of transference and counter-transference (see de Haan, 2011, for a useful review).

Although intuition is mentioned in coaching practitioner literature, there is a scarcity of empirical research on the topic within the field. This disparity between literature and practice puts at a disadvantage those seeking to work from a peer reviewed experiential evidence base, or confirm it as a valid and valuable resource. The absence of research on the subjective experience of the phenomenon may also suggest that intuition is being used without being fully understood.

In practice this leaves us with some important questions. Is the decision whether to use their intuition or not based on the level of domain-specific expertise? Do coaches consciously make connections between explicit and implicit knowledge? In summary, how do coaches actually use their intuition in a coaching setting?

These are exactly the questions Carmel’s field study looked into. We will report on her findings in Part 2 of this article.


  • Peter Jackson is coach, supervisor and senior lecturer on the MA Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University Business School


  • Carmel O’Connell is a coach, graduate of the MA Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University and Employee Relations practitioner within financial services



  • T Bachkirova, ‘The self of the coach: Conceptualization, issues, and opportunities for practitioner development’, in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(2), pp143-156, 2016
  • T Bachkirova & C Lawton-Smith, ‘From competencies to capabilities in the assessment and accreditation of coaches’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 13(2), pp123-140, 2015
  • G Claxton, Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than it Thinks. London: Yale University Press, 2015
  • A R Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Rationality and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994
  • E Dane & M G Pratt, ‘Exploring intuition and its role in managerial decision making’, in Academy Of Management Review, 32(1), pp33-54, 2007
  • E T Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962
  • E T Gendlin, Focusing. London: Random House, 2003
  • E de Haan, ‘Back to basics: How the discovery of transference is relevant for coaches and consultants today’, in International Coaching Psychology Review, 6(2), p181, 2011
  • J Haidt, ‘The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment’, in Psychological Review, 108(4), p814, 2001
  • G P Hodgkinson, J Langan-Fox & E Sadler-Smith, ‘Intuition: A fundamental bridging construct in the behavioural sciences’, in British Journal Of Psychology, 99(1), pp1-27, 2008
  • D A Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984
  • C Lawton-Smith, ‘Are competencies enough?’, in Coaching at Work, 10:6, pp56-7, 2015
  • D A Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Aldershot: Avebury, 1991
1 reply
  1. says:

    Measuring the Small Still Voice in Coaching

    What an endeavor!

    The article ‘Understanding Intuition’ by @Peter Jackson and @Carmel O’Connell enters my life in a special moment: in the midst of my investigating coaching as a process that reaches beyond the use of language to explore clients’ issues.

    Several meanings, alas! are dwelling in my breast!

    Given the dazzling and dizzying deluge of meanings existing around intuition I find it of great value that Carmel O’Connell has taken the effort to conduct a field study exploring its essence and the extent to which it matters in coaching.

    I am present, therefore I coach!

    Carmel’s recent empirical endeavor feels encouraging to me. My PhD journey complements Carmel’s scientific efforts and measures coaching presence by asking:

    – How do non-verbal interactions as manifest through ‘the small still voices’ in our bodies play out as a dyadic dynamic process?
    – How might they shape the extent to which clients feel safe in coaching?

    How about you?

    How are you as a coach? How flexible are you in how you respond to your clients?

    My literature review indicates that feeling capacitated to emotionally self-regulate in coaching appears to be the source of clients’ ability to experience enduring human development.

    Therefore, being present might be a skill for both:
    – the coach to enable the client to feel attuned with them and
    – the client to self-regulate and thus attain their goals – beyond coaching.
    Join this exciting project: Co-create difference & Make an impact in your practice.

    Join this high-quality research project conducted in affiliation with VU Amsterdam, NL & Ashridge Centre for Coaching, UK & Case Western Reserve University, US for an exciting learning journey:

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply