Don’t risk just trusting your intuition – get to know it! by Jeremy Ridge

1. The importance of intuition to Coaching Practice

For me, Intuition is a term that has real value for referring to our most important asset – our big bank of stored experience, and potential knowledge, we have acquired throughout life’s experiences.

Unfortunately, we still don’t quite understand how it works – exactly.

Likewise, for me, Intuition is central to Coaching:

  • It is the process that enables us to operate at the speed needed in the behaviours that enable the coaching relationship to work.

  • It is a useful lens for looking at what the coaching task is about – helping someone else find the space and process to get to know themselves better - this often means enabling them to understand what appears intuitively for them.

  • It is a powerful source of learning, about coaching itself, about the way to show up in any coaching process – what happened, and how/why exactly, and what can be learned from it – i.e. researching yourself as a coach.

I want to focus here on the last one of these three areas, above.

Intuition is also something that still draws little attention

In a world where being ‘evidence based’ always requires producing evidence that enables others to travel the same path of experience – the reproducible knowledge as a result of established scientific methods in the social sciences and humanities is still primitive. Consequently, this often limits research to what current scientific method can measure.

And we still seem to lack a methodology for evidencing intuition. So, I thought I’d share my ‘on-going’ research of how I consider how intuition works for me in relation to coaching, in particular.

After all, intuition is not necessarily always fully right. The experiences that have produced it may not have been representative of what is involved in a new situation. And it can be tempting to want to believe something rather than still test it!

To date, there have been several pieces shared on the good coach in which each of the coaching practitioners have, in their own way, acknowledged and tackled this conundrum about intuition. For example,

  • Luis San Martin (4.10.2017) celebrates being intuitive as a means for accessing the unconscious, but also leaves the exploration of this because there is part of intuition “that will always remain hidden”

  • Claire Sheldon (5.2.2017) similarly tackles intuition directly. Intuition is all about knowing-without-knowing-how; but then also goes on to warn how “I know too that my intuition isn’t always right. I can confuse it with my values, prejudices and beliefs.” Claire then goes on to explore how to get intuition right. In Coaching this hinged in particularly on establishing what Claire refers to as trust, and then permission, in the relationship as a basis for being able to bring her intuition into it.

Intuition keeps on coming up as important to coaching, yet still difficult to tie down and this is what I want to report on.

2. What can be learned from Other wider views about the idea of Intuition

As always, there are the shoulders of others to stand on in considering most matters.

A wikipedia summary [1] is quite comprehensive about the origin, and definition of the term, and its core meaning. The word intuition is described here, in the way it was originally used to mean to consider, in its original sense of careful attention. This is a meaning that attracts me (for e.g. “Attention!”: what really makes coaching work … or not!).

There are also a range of other meanings in how others use the meaning of intuition. For example, something that is best left as utterly invisible, and so intangible, that it defies explanation; and therefore not to be taken too seriously.  Even just plain ignore it!

There are a lot of people who say things like trust your gut instinct … of course I can take these words as useful metaphors. I am not sure the gut is where experience gets processed; and I am not convinced instinct is the same as intuition either!

For me intuition is something important by itself.

For me, Intuition is like compressed knowledge – stored like a zip file – for efficiency and space saving – which we can use even without opening it up to see how it arrived at what it knows. But it is also important to check it out, to open up the file.

I see a useful differentiation between the different approaches to this intuition idea.  I have summarised, below, the typical range of these views into three different levels:

2.1. The tightly closed view
2.2. The ‘reflective’ perspective – open but limited in ways to get to know it
2.3. How to get to know it – sorting out the evidence trails of experience

2.1. The tightly closed view

At one level, intuition is viewed as irrelevant to knowledge. For example, some comments I overheard recently were:

“Like so many other words grappling with explanations for human behavior, intuition is beautifully vague and open to all sorts of interpretation. It simply gets used in the sense of ‘gut feeling’, contrasting it with considered, rational decision making.”

Reference to this term ‘gut feeling’ is a common way of linking intuition to being some form of visceral/body like sensation. There is no brain involved in it.

This viewpoint is often very dismissive as being something not worth paying attention to as it is – by definition, almost, impossible to understand. It is some sort of random act that is unprovable, unpredictable, and also unreliable.

2.2. The ‘reflective’ perspective

I have also come across progressively higher and higher levels of appreciation – where there are attempts to try and engage with this tough idea. For example, Cholle (2011) shares his expert view about Intuition, and how it’s used for in Psychology Today as follows:

“… Instinct and Intuition, as I define it, is this:

• Instinct is our innate inclination toward a particular behaviour (as opposed to a learned response). (there is still a question about what is not a learned response. Is breathing learned or instinct, for example. )
• A gut feeling—or a hunch—is a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.
• Intuition is a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.

So, here, intuition is more than just visceral – and shows up as some sort of consciousness – ironically linked to something referred to as non-conscious. At least in the sense that it is difficult to see/observe it in the sense/way that much of knowledge currently needs to be seen, for example through a form of analytical reasoning.

The author then goes further:

              “…. studies now show that only 20 percent of the brain's gray matter is dedicated to conscious thoughts, while 80 percent is dedicated to nonconscious thoughts.”

And then,

“… But let's not stop there. Here are three ways to listen to that internal voice and allow its guidance into your everyday life:

1 - Keep a journal. Writing your thoughts and feelings down on paper—even if you "think" you have little to say—helps the nonconscious mind open up.
2 - Turn off Your Inner Critic. ……….. listen without judgment. Allow the inner dialogues to happen without
fear or ridicule.
3 - Find a Solitary Place. A place where you can allow emotions to flow freely …….

This approach would appear to reflect the preoccupation in the current coaching world with the term Reflection as some method of creating a space to simply capture this intuition, but without being very specific about how that space can always produce results.

2.3. How to get to know intuition – sorting out the evidence trails

The next level that’s bringing closer together how intuition works, whilst still at a very high level (particularly when it relates to the brain), is through the retrospective linking and sorting out of relevant evidence trails that led to intuitive reactions.  A piece of work reported by Hodgkinson et al (2008) [3] reports an important example of the way that intuition can be researched and produce the more tangible understanding of how it works

“… intuition is the result of the way our brains store, process and retrieve information on a subconscious level and so is a real psychological phenomenon which needs further study to help us harness its potential.

Yet science has historically ridiculed the concept of intuition, putting it in the same box as parapsy‐chology, phrenology and other ‘pseudoscientific’ practices.

Intuition is the brain drawing on past experiences and external cues to make a decision – but one that happens so fast the reaction is at a non- conscious level. All we’re aware of is a general feeling that some‐ thing is right or wrong.

The article cites the recorded case of a Formula One driver who braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend without knowing why – and as a result avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead, undoubtedly saving his life.

“… The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally re-live the event. In hindsight he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.

The article is less informative about the exact process of forensic analysis, however. But this does at least suggest forming greater some awareness about intuition, and how it works, is possible.

The perspective provided by these three samples, summarises, for me, the views available about intuition and provides some useful understanding about my own perspective. The tightly closed view may need more than mere evidence to open it up, ironically.  If people have locked themselves into a limited form of evidence it leaves them with a substantial learning curve in order to access intuition for themselves. Reflection (and associated terms such as ‘reflexivity') suggest some openness to the idea, but reflection by itself, about just yourself even, can risk effectively living in a vacuum, and risks being unhelpful. There needs to be something that informs reflection. And that is often what can be missing.

3. Researching one’s own intuition: my Stop the clock approach!

Rather like in Coaching, itself, I have found that the way to make progress with Intuition is often a matter for what works for each individual, rather than taking one approach that will work for everybody.

I even took research seriously when I completed a Doctorate on the way to make sense of everything that flows from intuition in Coaching [4]. Even then, this research had to be kept simple, to fit the academic agenda.

3.1. How I understand my way of researching my intuition.

The simplest description about what works for me, is best described as I see it as taking time to ‘stop the clock!’

Experience is about reactions and responses. And these build over time. I barely think consciously about ‘crossing the road’. It happens automatically – from the intuitive accumulation of doing it many times.

However, with some of the areas of life’s experience it is important to understand just where I have got to, which involves having a context, and how I got there. 

  • ‘Stopping the clock’ is my way of being able to find the time to investigate experience.

  • ‘Stopping the clock’ means I am able to choose to not have to carry on with events as they happen.

  • Then, the process is about taking the trouble and effort to re-wind, and re-play just what event is linked with what in any set of experiences around a particular theme.

  • And then, unravelling these chains of events, and interactions between them.

‘Stopping the clock’ is simply about events, and re-call of them – with the major event being just one’s own reaction – but also linking reactions between separate people.

Considering the intuition involved in saying HELLO: For example, even saying hello to someone happens so fast that processing all the data available in a second or two is less than feasible in a reproducible way. You can hardly say ‘stop the clock’, I want to consider the infinite range of word and body (and clothes!) and other context configurations that are appropriate; as well as look in the manual for the appropriate interpretation and response in the circumstances. This is also assuming I have obtained the objective perception about what the other person has produced as initiating my assumption that hello is appropriate … maybe one day!

All of this information flashes through the cognitive channels with scant (‘cognitive‘) awareness, and results in a choice, and then action – in half a second …. And then there is the next event etc. etc. etc.

‘Stopping the clock’ can only realistically happen afterwards. So many processes are taking place, and I have learned to build conscious awareness about them. This has to be done without all the data that may be relevant. Such as full data about what caused the reactions in response to my saying hello. Another big intangible is also information about the context that has already created expectations even before saying hello etc. There is also the added complexity that perception of the hello moment has probably not been perfect, on either side.

I have worked hard to build the ability to zoom in on events, in detail, as I recall them. I have learned to run them in slow motion, quite visually. I can separate the events down to the wide range that happens in a second, as well as zooming in on the micro behaviour of the extent to which a frown was forming or a smile flickering.

This all depends on where my attention ‘camera’ was focused.  There is still plenty I don’t focus on, or hold in the film memory. So, I have to hold, and build, my attention with lots of practice. The trick is to replay / stop / repeat the play / use slow motion i.e. ‘stopping the clock’ and investigating a small sample.

3.2. Unpacking the intuitive processes involved in the hello process of ‘settling down’ or ‘ checking in ‘ before a meeting starts

My equivalent of the racing driver story is how forensic analysis can be used to unpack compressed events that just happen as an intuitive process in the hello process at the start of a meeting. This is a normal part of team coaching.

This set of events is often described by participants as some sort of simple settling down process, or checking in, even before the meeting proper starts. Yet, this is where the real exchanges, and contracting, is going on that often amounts to the real meeting itself.

An example: Using video replay of events and playback of meetings in team coaching.

The task: Creating a short (30 to 40 minute ) one off, neutral, task for a small sub group to go off and work on – which is recorded and then reviewed with both this group, and the rest of the team. A neutral task refers to a task where there is no natural, technical, authority for what is involved. The review process, afterwards, enables that opportunity to stop the clock; and even review frame by frame, capturing details of events, and their effects on others.

The review often focusses on key questions such as,

  • When did the meeting actually start? Settling down to the work space (e.g. arrange of seating around the table) involved and other initial banter is not seen as part of the meeting proper – until someone typically suggests ‘shall we begin’.

  • How best to enable the awareness that participants can typically bring to the interpretation of events apparently unrelated to the task, and rarely ever discussed as part of the meeting proper, such as where people sit – such as in the centre of the work space, or at the edges, or corners.

  • Creating conditions where participants often disguised and hidden, more personal agendas can be disclosed and shared constructively.

It often results in the conclusion, during the detailed review afterwards, that the meeting was over before it started!

Formally writing up this whole process, and illustrating the evidence, is quite a task, of course. Even several minutes of settling down, when viewed frame by frame, and person by person, amounts to a bulk of evidencing that is not common in my experience of research into these sorts of matters. But I am often amazed at how observant and articulate people can be about these invisible, and rarely stated causes behind what happens.

The importance of this shared degree of insight and understanding gives me confidence in how the invisible processes often referred to as intuitive can be unraveled.

4. Conclusions and next steps

Putting words to this phenomenon of Intuition has been helpful to me.

  1. It helps to sharpen the focus I use, to make the best use of my intuition, and the need to keep on engaging and doing it – like keeping physical muscles healthy and strong.

  2. It has also helped me to map the gap that can exist between those who are avowedly just not interested in learning and managing this amazing resource of intuition. There are still many resources we have not made the best use of yet – but at least we have learned the earth is best not seen as flat.

  3. It also helps me in linking to others who are excited by the idea but who are still developing their perspectives on how best to engage with intuition.

As Steve Jobs commented, “….  intuition is more powerful than intellect!!” [5]

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

4  The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, Jeremy Ridge (1975) (Available to download)