Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 6: Bridging the gap between Intention and Behaviour


This week the topic we will be looking at literally is a link and not only between coaching and psychology.

We shall look at the space between intention and action and how we might go about bridging the gap between intention and behaviour.

We are all guilty of it. We have a really strong intention to do something but we just don’t seem to get round to doing it. That is, until it gets really urgent and the pain associated with not doing it outweighs the discomfort of actually doing it. Or, it just loses its importance and we can forget that we ever thought about it.

How can psychology and psychological theory help us in bridging the gap between intention and behaviour?

There is a well-used theory in health and organisational psychology research called The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1988). It attempts to unscramble the mix of our beliefs, norms, attitudes and perceptions to give a picture of how they lead to our intentions and ultimately our behaviour and actions. The diagram below shows the theory.

It looks relatively simple doesn’t it?

Remember that psychological theories try to explain what we sometimes perceive as common sense and it certainly seems like common sense that we have an intention before we actually do anything. So far, so good.

Psychological researchers are a curious lot so many of them have set out to see how much this theory explains actual behaviour. The results are fairly consistent; the theory explains roughly 30% of the ‘variance.’ That is, this theory can explain 30% of the reasons why we do things which, in research terms, is actually quite impressive. However, you don’t need to be a scientist to spot that it leaves 70% of the reasons for behaviour unexplained. There must be other things operating, or that could operate, in bridging the gap between intention and behaviour.

Before we start on a train of thought that convinces us that the intention-behaviour gap is a really bad thing just consider for a moment what would happen if it wasn’t there. We would be rushing around like wild things acting on every good (or bad) idea that came into our heads!

Our role as coaches often means that we are working with our clients in the intention behaviour gap, and we help them to build a bridge to their important actions and behaviour. One of the first things we can do is to help them decide what is important (sounds like the topic for another blog post) before we get bridge building.

So, what is out there to help us in bridging the gap between intention and behaviour?

The first one is planning; and associated with planning – goal setting. Planning has been shown to be a reliable ‘mediator’ between intention and behaviour/action. Think of a mediator as a pipeline between two elements of a model. In some cases, such as this one, there will be a better flow from one to the other with the connection that planning provides.

Of course, it’s important to know what you are planning for and that’s where goal-setting comes in. Having set a meaningful, well-formed goal we can help our clients to bridge the gap between intention and behaviour by helping them to plan their journey towards that goal.

There are other instruments we can use and one of them is called . . .

Implementation Intentions – more of that next week.

In the meantime, try to spot where psychology is influencing your coaching practice and leave a comment on what you notice.

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Posted in Blogs, Coaching & Psychology