In Part 1, Peter Jackson explored affective and somatic aspects of intuition and potential origins of ‘felt’ knowledge. He asked whether practitioners used intuition based on some specific area of knowledge, and how coaches actually used intuition in their practice.
Part 2: Carmel O’Connell explores these questions in more detail in her field work
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.
As a coach, I’m aware that intuition plays an enormous role in my practice. The coaching process is complex and dynamic. So, however evidence-based I want to be, I’m constantly making judgements and decisions that take place – and have to take place – in the moment. This seems like an important aspect of practice to understand better, while a lot of the literature describes it in only very vague terms.
As a student researcher I thought it would be useful to look at the phenomenon in more detail.
I decided to take a ‘heuristic’ approach, taking into account both my own experience and that of other coaches who I invited to participate in the research. In order to see what was happening, I wanted coaches to relive the experience of using intuition.
At the same time, I was mindful that a lot of our decision-making and judgement happens outside of conscious control, so it didn’t make sense to ask people to express their experience through abstract and formal language. Instead, I encouraged participants to describe their experience in terms of images, metaphors and feelings.
Consistent with a heuristic approach, I did this myself too, making sense of my own experience. That way I could build a picture of the phenomenon in all its complexity, sense and texture (Todres & Galvin, 2008), looking at it both from the inside out and from the outside in.
I asked each coach to think about particular incidents when they used their intuition, and then focused them on what was going on for them before, during and after the moment of intuition. We also checked what they did with the information that was intuited, ie, whether they understood what it meant, where it had come from, whether they used the information, or shared it with their clients, and how confident they felt about doing so.
As themes from each participant’s experience emerged, they were combined together, and with my own, allowing me both to build a picture of the kinds of experiences other coaches had, and to expand my self-understanding too (Sela-Smith, 2002).
What did we discover?
The study found that each coach had specific strategies that opened themselves to access their own intuition, that they ensured they were mentally and physically prepared for the coaching session, that they were disciplined and focused, that they were not so attached to the information and whether it was right or wrong, and so were prepared to share it, even if it did not resonate for the client. Importantly the study also suggested that:
- a) Although the coaches I spoke to worked in different ways with their intuition, the experiences they described related to ‘in-the-moment’ decision-making, which happened far too quickly for them to have considered all possible choices and their pros and cons.
- b) That said, all the coaches related their experience of intuition to their level of knowledge of the coaching process and their coaching expertise. When they felt they lacked coaching experience, they tended to be less confident, somewhat hesitant and needed more often to double-check their options before taking action based on the information that was intuited.
- c) The tentativeness with which the less experienced coaches approached the decision about what to do with the intuited information, the knowledge-check and the certitude in the information intuited (it didn’t cross their minds that it might be wrong) are also characteristics of calculated risk-taking in a dynamic situation. This suggests that rather than lacking confidence, the coaches may be using aspects of prior general experience in a speculative way.
Overall, the study confirmed that coaches use their intuition extensively when coaching, but rather than appearing out of nowhere, it comes about through deliberate preparation, strategies like a strong focus on listening and tuning in to their clients ‘emptying out’.
Emptying out refers to various methods or practices that coaches employ to prepare for coaching to enable them to clear their minds and switch into coaching mode. It can include mindfulness practice, body scans or simply finding a quiet space to calm the mind and let go of unrelated distracting thoughts.
At the same time, experienced coaches are careful to remain self-aware and self-regulating, using their coaching knowledge and experience to ensure they are not putting their own biases and projections onto clients.
There is necessarily an element of risk taking. To grow, learn and better understand what has been intuited, coaches do need to be courageous when sharing what has been intuited as this creates as much a meaning making opportunity for the coach as for the client. In this way, the coach can become more and more aware of the reasons behind their own decision-making.
Even though coaching has its origins in several fields, it has been claimed that coach training and education does not seem to acknowledge prior or related experience (Bluckert, 2004). However, prior experience from related disciplines can contribute to precisely this capacity to adapt to a changing environment.
For the learner coach to achieve a practice-based wisdom that includes insights and judgements based on the experience arising from dealing with ill-structured problems, the learner coach would benefit from formal training on how to implement such principles.
Critical reflection therefore becomes an important learning (and performance) tool. Being part of a learning community or one-to-one relationship (such as in supervision) can be a useful check and a spur to learning.
- 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.
- Her research was supervised by Peter Jackson, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University Business School.
- P Bluckert, ‘The state of play in corporate coaching: Current and future trends’, in Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(2), 53-56, 2004
- S Sela-Smith, ‘Heuristic research: A review and critique of Moustakas’s method’, in Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 42(3), 53-88, 2002
- L Todres & K T Galvin, ‘Embodied interpretation: A novel way of evocatively re-presenting meanings in phenomenological research’, in Qualitative Research, 8(5), 568-583, 2008