"Using intuition wisely? That’s quite a journey..." by Claire Sheldon (guest)

Do you use intuition in your coaching practice? 

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Me too! 

But it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started unpicking what that actually means. And the truth is… Well it’s tricky to articulate and make sense of the slippery, elusive, hard-to-put–your-finger-on phenomenon that is intuition in coaching.

  • I could write about the empirical evidence (a plethora for other professions, limited – so limited! – for coaching);
  • I could point to the practitioner literature (contradictory – and mostly supporting the assertion that ‘successful coaches are highly intuitive’ (Skiffington and Zeus, 2000: 164);
  • I could reference my own research.

But talk to any coach and it’s the stories that resonate...

And before this story, some clarity about terms.

There’s a lot of disagreement about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of intuition. And there are some touch points.

It’s not instinct – that’s an evolutionary imperative; and it’s not insight – that’s a ‘eureka’ moment providing a logical path between a problem and its solution.

For me, intuition is the outcome of our intuiting, a link between our non-conscious and external stimuli, the fizz, anxiety or inner smile that signals knowing-without-knowing-how.

  • It’s System 1 – fast, preverbal and automatic), as opposed to System 2 – time intensive, conscious and effortful (Kahneman, 2011; Evans, 2008).
  • It has most value in complex, fluid environments where there’s no right or wrong answer, and where vast amounts of disparate data need to be processed and acted on quickly (Klein, 2003).

Bells should be ringing here.

Because that describes every coaching conversation, every coaching relationship I’ve been part of. And I suspect the same is true for you. I also suspect that your experience of working with your intuition will, in some way, mirror mine.


What I label ‘intuition’ is critical to my practice.

It’s at the heart of some of my most exuberant, exciting and insightful sessions. I know too that my ‘intuition’ isn’t always right. I can confuse it with my values, prejudices and beliefs. It can be out of kilter, jolting the rhythm of a session or spiking the coaching relationship.  When a client revealed that ‘very small opinions of yours rocked me’, I realised my clients might be buying into my interventions because I was the coach – not a skilful intuitive. I know that putting an intuition on hold can be hugely productive – and that ignoring my intuition has resulted in some of my most difficult and bruising coaching transactions.

So what differentiates the success from the car crash?

I believe it’s what happens in that full-of-potential moment between noticing and acting on an intuition. In that moment,

  • I might choose to stay put, keeping my intuition (or interpretation of it) to myself…
  • I might choose to enter the territory, sharing my intuition (or interpretation of it) with my client…
  • Or I might make an intervention that is more – or less - elegant and effective.

In this blog I want to share a story about getting it right, an intervention that appeared to fly in the face of reason, yet hit the transformational mark…

My story

I’m with a client, let’s call him Tim, in a central London café. He’s a delight to work with. Committed, enthusiastic, self-aware. A lot happens in the space between our sessions. Today he’s played his blinder. He’s alluded to his extreme and debilitating performance anxiety in previous sessions. A presentation – particularly to senior people – has him stuttering, tumbling over his words, turning crimson. And in the lead up he becomes increasingly anxious, unable to sleep or to focus on his work. Not only is his response debilitating. It’s exhausting and potentially career limiting. He’s an important gig coming up and wants, more than anything, to manage his nerves. I listen as he takes me through his strategies. He’s ticked every managing anxiety box, done every course, read every book, googled every dry-mouthed symptom. He can tell me about the time when, fresh faced and innocent, he’d speak up in class without a care. He’s covered the ground – then re-trodden it.

Nothing’s shifted.

I’m feeling stuck and helpless when something catches my attention: ‘if only I could get through the introduction…’ I’m tentative: ‘How about we try that right now?’ He’s game.

We do a short breathing exercise to help Tim centre and prepare himself.  ‘Stand up,’ I say. It’s a ludicrous request. The café’s quiet. While perfect for a coaching conversation it felt inappropriate and exposing for introductory declamations. So why my suggestion, ‘Let’s go outside’? I’m not sure where it came from, but it felt right. And I knew Tim would push back if the experiment felt too extreme – we’d developed sufficient respect and rapport. Stepping out into the noise and bustle of the pedestrianised street I had no idea where the work was heading – but felt confident we were on the right track. At my suggestion Tim stood in the middle of the road, introducing himself and his presentation to anyone and no-one.

We graded the experiment: he made his introduction louder and clearer as I stepped further and further away. Tourists and off-duty beauticians didn’t give him a second look. Taking things up a notch, he emulated the fear inducing ‘walk up’ until walk, eye contact and body language were pitch perfect and the introduction easy and natural. He smiled, nodded, confirmed, ‘I’m enjoying it – it feels different. I’ve got it!’ My initial response was to step back inside for Tim to reflect on his learning. Something stopped me. ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ I said. As we wove through Soho, Tim talked me through his plans for the weeks, days and hours before the presentation, nailing his preparation, how he’d get support from colleagues, his self support…

The result? We parted outside the café agreeing to a call before the big day, a call that Tim didn’t need. Here’s his emailed narrative:

‘Feeling much more relaxed and calm about it all, dare I say almost looking forward to it.’
‘Feeling perfectly fine about it now…’
‘Practiced a few times now with various different people. One final run through.’

And finally – ‘Smashed it…’


Reflecting on ‘my intuition’

Subsequent conversations confirmed that the session had been transformational – that something big had shifted for Tim. So what happened in the session? What possessed me to make this potentially shame-inducing intervention with this particular client? I’ve no idea what triggered the idea – that’s the nature of intuition. But I can unravel what I’d done to prepare the ground for responding so confidently to my intuition – and can pinpoint what I did in the moment too.

My research leads me to believe there are four preconditions for effectively accessing and using intuition. Two of these, Trust and Permission, are co-created with the client. Expertise and Maturing as a coach are still about the coach in relationship – and specifically about their personal development.

  1. Trust:  My relationship with Tim had evolved over time. He’d worked with me on an extended leadership development programme as well as being a coaching client. In our first and subsequent sessions, levels of self-exposure led me to believe we’d built rapport and trust quickly and effectively.
     
  2. Permission:  In our contracting session, I’d positioned somatic and intuitive data as valuable adjuncts to the rational and obvious, seeking Tim’s permission to share, explore and enquire.  He’d experienced this happening in both group and one-to-one settings. And he’d reported a slow build in confidence, and that he valued the space to speak, to be challenged and to be heard.
     
  3. Expertise:  Expertise is an enabler. Attending to the mechanics of the coaching session it gave rational System 2 the space to notice my intuitive message. And in that moment it contributed two things. It helped me choose whether or not to share my intuition with the client. And it supported me in sharing my intuitive prompts in ways that added value and opened up the coaching. Expertise does not guarantee that I’ll notice an intuition or notice it well – personal distractions or environmental issues may get in the way. I might still misjudge an intuition or get my timing wrong. 

    Which bring us to…
     
  4. Maturing as a coach:  Maturing as a coach influences how I understand and use intuition. While closely linked to Expertise it is both subtly different and more complex. Maturing as a coach means balancing gut and reason, paying close attention to an intuition when it enters my consciousness. I need to make detached and nuanced judgements about both its value and what I’ll do with it. And I can only do that if I recognise when personal ‘noise’ impairs my intuitive judgment.

    The self-imposed moment of slowing down and re-centring as I took James through the breathing exercise bought both of us value! It helped me move from ‘what am I going to do here?’ to ‘trust the moment’. From this place I was more courageous, better able to tolerate not-knowing. Crucially, this meant I attended to the strength of my intuitive imperative. I initiated an intervention that felt edgy, even a little dangerous, but calculated, relevant, right. Five minutes earlier I might have self-censored and succumbed to System 2’s pleas to play it safe.

Is this the end of the story? Yes and no. In the busy, anonymous street I was in familiar coaching territory – supporting a client as they step into their power. Tim grew taller, more expansive, came more sharply into focus. I can rationalise the second intuitive nudge that then took us walking the streets – I was unwilling to return to the place where we’d started, I was embedding James’ plans and intentions kinaesthetically as well as orally – but that wasn’t it. I was on an intuitive roll and my gut said it would work.

And that’s the thing.

My research provides me with a model and preconditions for working elegantly and effectively with intuition. But the real prize is learning to use intuition wisely and with confidence. And that’s quite a journey…

Question: How do you use intuition in your practice?

To connect with Claire: claire@thetallhouse.co.uk

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Claire has over 20 years experience as an executive coach and facilitator. Her clients report developing richer, more productive workplace relationships, and the skills and self-awareness to sustain individual and organisational change.

Having long described herself as ‘an intuitive coach’, her curiosity about what that might mean triggered an MA dissertation. Her research broke new ground in clarifying how coaches talk about and use their intuition. She uses her model, Working at the Boundary, to support her own work as a coach – and to help coaches and supervisors extend personal understandings of intuition in their practice

References:

Evans, J St B T (2008) ‘Dual processing accounts of reasoning, judgement and social cognition’. Annual Review of Psychology. No. 59, pp 255-278.
Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin Books.
Klein, G (2003) Intuition at work. New York: Currency Doubleday
Skiffington, S and Zeus, P (2000) Behavioural coaching: How to build sustainable personal and organisational strength. Sydney: McGraw-Hill