Saturday, September 15, 2018

Trust your gut, listen to reason: How experienced coaches work with intuition in their practice

By Claire Sheldon
Summary and Critique by Jillian J

Sheldon conducted a study designed to "add detail to the map of how experienced coaches work with their intuition in their practice, and to the interplay between 'gut' and 'reason'; and to co-create a language, theory, or model to support and legitimize discussion about intuition in coaching." She used an abbreviated form of grounded theory method to survey four experienced executive coaches, how they talked about intuition, and how they worked at the boundary between intuitive and rational ways of knowing. Organizing her findings in this model,
she concludes that expertise and maturing as a coach have an impact on the quality of interaction at the intuitive/rational boundary, and dialogue extends understandings of intuition.  

Sheldon begins by outlining existing literature on intuition in coaching, highlighting that intuition is widely accepted as a non-conscious, holistic, rapid, and affectively charged way of processing and surfacing information and coming to conclusions. There is also agreement that intuition has a place in the dual processing models that differentiate between non-conscious and rational cognition. She then explains that intuition belongs to Type 1 of that model-- fast, preverbal, and automatic, which contrasts with type 2-- time intensive, rational, effortful and easily disrupted cognition. The quality of intuition decisions develops alongside levels of expertise and self-awareness, and can be impeded by metacognition, stress, and environmental constraints. Her literature review also finds that intuitive judgments have most value where there is a need to evaluate, process, and act quickly on vast amounts of disparate data.  

Sheldon's model explains how coaches interact with intuition for better or for worse. Coaches fall into the  "missing a chance" block when they dismiss the intuition, mute the intuition (not knowing how to articulate it) or are ill-prepared (caught off-guard by the opportunity to use intuition). This block resulted in losing ground with the client.

Sheldon found the uses of intuition that belonged in the bottom right block, "taking a risk" were the result of minimal preparation and little reflection. These instances of coaches voicing intuition came across as being presumptuous or showing off, and even just getting it wrong. She called these, "a hit and a miss". The relationship between coach and client might not have been developed enough for the coach to voice the intuition. Consequentially, the coaching confidence and confidence in the coach both suffered. 

The top left block, "holding back" examined a coaches mature choice not to share the intuition, identifying a need for more information, recognizing the intuition may not add anything constructive, and being cognizant of the need for care in the early days of coaching. In Sheldon's study, the coaches talked about having discretion in this block, deciding when it was best to "let it lie" and keep the intuition to themselves. 

The top right block, "allowing not-knowing" is a category wherein coaches identified their intuition, but perhaps didn't know what it meant at the given stage. They chose to "offer up" the intuition by sharing a hunch. This was a leading tactic that employed soft language to enter into dialogue with the client. It was a way to express the intuition to the client, but left enough space for the client to either identify with it or not. 

Sheldon concluded that identifying the intuition is a skill. Knowing what to do with it is another skill entirely. An experienced and mature coach needs to be able to do both. 

I agree with Sheldon's conclusion about needing to identify the intuition as well as know what to do with it. Her model was useful in mapping the employment of intuition in coaching. I think the use of intuition is vastly different for decision-making, but it's interesting to study intuition from various levels because it helps us identify the nuances in application. As analysts, we have mentors and coaches. Understanding how intuition plays into that relationship is important because that relationship can influence how we make decisions. Sheldon shared the literature's conclusion that intuition is most useful in complex situations with disparate data and where the decisionmaker needed to act quickly. This study appeared to focus on the strategic withholding of intuition or the gentle proposition of an intuitive thought for the purpose of dialogue. I think those focus points, especially the latter point, work better in coaching than decision-making. If we accept the literature's position on when intuition is most useful, then we accept that there might not be time for a careful dialogue where we offer up a proposition with plenty of space. On the other hand, as an analyst on a team, asserting an intuition might be more successful when presented as a hunch, much like Sheldon's coaches did. That ties to the fundamental principle of being intellectually honest when giving estimates. I think Sheldon's article is an important study on how to use intuition in coaching and I believe we should consider her findings when translating intuition to other actions e.g. decision-making and team analysis. 


  1. Some research suggests that implicit learning improves intuition based decision making. In regards to "knowing when" to use intuition, it appears that it comes down to experience in field/industry one works in. Would you agree?

    1. I would, Billy. I also think the author was getting to that point when she developed the model on the axis labeled, "being more mature". I think we can align those ideas-- a coach who is more mature in the field would be a better judge of when to use intuition.

  2. I find this quite interesting, especially in regards to the observations to do with "holding back." Personally, this is an area that I find problematic. The balance between acknowledging your intuitive judgement versus the need for more information is certainly one that I think is very relevant to analysts. While an analyst can certainly harbor an intuitive judgement, they may be well served by exploring alternative judgements by using other structure methods.

    1. Harry I think you make a good point about identifying the intuition, and if you feel inclined to harbor it, then use other structured methods to explore it. I think it would be important to pay special mind so as not to fall victim to confirmation bias. It would be all too easy to say things are confirming our intuitive thought.

  3. In my experience, veteran coaches generally have a better grasp on the above model than do younger, inexperienced coaches. In football, I've had several younger coaches that, when it comes to the "x's and o's," were strategic geniuses. However, when the opposing team's coaches change the game plan, and all the preparation and scheming become futile, the young coaches freeze up. On the other hand the seasoned coaches have gained enough experience in these kind of situations to trust their "gut" on what to do and when.

    I want to draw the parallel between this and our discussion on how veteran analysts tend to use intuition much more than structured analytic techniques such as ACH. In doing so, I think its worth exploring the idea of experience and how it impacts judgement and intuition.

  4. I see a lot of similarities in the literature on intuition, the definition in which many perceive it and having experience in the field will lead to more successful outcomes of intuition. I agree that her model is difficult to relate it to an analyst's job or decision making. I wonder what methods we can use to study the strengths on intuition in our field. I believe intuition can be more useful and successful in many other disciplines but at the end of the day, it may be the most commonly used method in all fields.

  5. I thought it was interesting how she spilt intuition of coaches into the four quadrates. For the most part I have always considered intuition to be in the " hit or miss" section. Either a person is write or wrong when using intuition. How does someone calibrate themselves to have more hits then misses when using their intuition?