Intuition in Coaching

by Mary Musselbrook

mary musselbrookThe whole topic of intuition in coaching has been weaving through my thinking in the last month or so. What I’ve noticed is that what intuition means to me has changed.
In the coaching context, I would, in the past, have considered it to be those moments where (seemingly unprompted) I picked up an issue that was implicit rather than explicit in the interaction … and in my excitement, I would pronounce with a flourish (mental at least) what I understood the issue to be. (Eg, I sense that there are difficulties in your relationship with your boss) Or, on the assumption that I was right, I would quietly incorporate my interpretation into the interchange (eg, look out for an opportunity to suggest some work on managing difficult relationships).

I realised that while I was often right about what the issue was, I was also quite often wrong about what I had interpreted it as being. However, what I was NOT usually mistaken about was that there was ‘something’ implicit going on that was having an impact on the interaction.

Trust my gut … but not my mind …!
Over time, and with experience and study and training in areas such as mindfulness and embodied energy, I’ve come to a more sophisticated appreciation of what may be going on in the process of communication between two people. We pick up a lot more “data” than we have the capacity to consciously process and it can surface in some wonderful ways. Sometimes, we make intuitively good sense of it; other times the sense we make of it is a long way away from what it means to the other person. 

At some level (albeit sub-conscious), I think that we are probably processing it and interpreting it in according to our own models and constructs and the current relational context. Since we are flawed, then our sense-making is inevitably flawed. Hence my slightly flippant phrase, “trust my gut … but not my mind!” 

In my work now, if I notice an intuitive response to something/someone, I am learning to describe what I am experiencing in a more neutral way – trying to resist the need to ‘demonstrate my cleverness’ by guessing what might be the issue for the client. Instead I might ask them what issues or concerns might be “in the room” that have not yet been voiced. Or I might say that I’m feeling uneasy about moving on to a new topic and that I’m feeling that something is being unsaid. Or I might make a quiet note to myself to reflect on what I was picking up and where it might be coming from (me or the client or both). 
And sometimes, in the flow of a conversation, I DO voice an idea or a hunch that I think might be useful for the client to hear and to react to. I try to use “soft” language.
A recent example, when working with a client, was: “I have an intuitive sense that you are feeling a bit edgy at the moment. My hunch is that you are edgy towards me because I am straying into territory that you don’t want to explore.” 
The response was … “I guess I am a bit edgy at the moment, but it’s because what we have just talked about has made me think about a different incident – one that I’m really embarrassed about!” 
Lovely example of good data, wrongly interpreted! 
But the open language and tone (“my hunch”) meant minimal damage done by my wrong interpretation. The subsequent exploration of what had happened and what remained unresolved about the embarrassing incident was really powerful for him and allowed us to work on his capacity for self-critiquing without being overly self-critical.

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