Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 7: Bridging the Intention-Behaviour Gap with Implementation Intentions

In our last Blog, we introduced the idea of there being a gap between intention and behaviour

. . . and we started to look at how we might bridge it. This week we will delve into implementation intentions and how they might be used to go about bridging the intention-behaviour gap.

We ended the last blog by just touching on planning and goal-setting as methods for bridging the intention-behaviour gap. So that seems straightforward so far, as a coach one of our basic modes of operating is to help our clients to set goals and make plans towards achieving them.

But we have all experienced the times when, having made sometimes quite detailed and specific plans, our clients have not carried out the actions that they promised themselves they would do. The have fallen into the intention–behaviour gap.

Implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1993)

. . . give an insight into how goal intentions can be turned into action. You might already be using implementation intentions without knowing it. When I went through my coaching training it was described as ‘the nail down.’ Not a very pretty or empathic description really, but quite apt. It can be uncomfortable to ask a series of questions like . . .

‘What day will you do this?’

‘What time?

‘Where will you be?’

‘For how long?

. . . and so on, but my experience is that when I do this my clients are more likely to carry out their planned actions. One of my clients once described reaching the planned time and location and “it was like having an itch I just had to scratch.”

So, implementation intention theory

. . . is behind our efforts to elicit commitment from our clients. Their use can also be extended to take into account the situations that our clients live and work in. They are formed as relatively simple if-then statements and mini-plans. For example, your client tells you that they often can’t get things done because they are often interrupted by friends and colleagues. This can be a common problem.

Your client doesn’t want to be rude and damage important relationships and neither do they feel assertive enough (yet!) to simply tell the truth to their interrupters. So, you might explore different situations and come up with some implementation intentions and they can be quite detailed and specific . . .

‘If (when!) Tony approaches for a friendly chat, I will tell him I’m having a break in 20 minutes and would he like a coffee together then?’

‘If Jenny asks for the latest sales report, I will tell her it is the next thing on my to-do list and I will get it to her in the next hour’

‘If Angela asks for help with her spreadsheet I will ask her to come back in 30 minutes when I will be able to give her my full attention’

You might have spotted that implementation intentions can be a really good tool in handling anticipated obstacles and you and your client can be as imaginative as you like! “If I notice that I’m hesitating to call that important client I will look at my favourite family photo and remind myself why I’m doing this.” One of my clients set an implementation intention to give her dog a hug whenever she felt the first inkling of overwhelm approaching.

Setting implementation intentions can be great fun
and they can make the most of your clients’ strengths, values and personality.
The more established your coaching relationship
the wackier they can get!

Implementation intentions are only one tool to bridge the intention behaviour gap and next week we will examine a few more. In the meantime have a go! The theory is interesting (I hope!) but the only things you need to remember are ‘the nail-down’ and ‘if-then.’ These simple approaches have enormous potential to help your clients bridge the intention-behaviour gap.

As ever, try to spot where psychology is influencing your coaching practice and include it in your professional reflections log.


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