Exploring the Links between Coaching and Psychology 8: More on bridging the Intention-Behaviour Gap


Last week we looked at using implementation intentions to bridge the gap between behaviour and intentions.

This week we shall look at a few more aspects and try to uncover what it is that maintains the intention-behaviour gap.

How do we form intentions in the first place?

Let’s look at a common intention – to change our diet and to eat more healthily. When are we likely to form that intention? When we are rushed off our feet and stressed trying to get that urgent job done? Probably not. We will form it when we are calm and relaxed and have the energy and thinking resources to recall and understand the benefits of our intentions. We will probably start planning how we would make the changes and even start to anticipate the barriers and problems we will face – using implementation intentions of course!

So, in reality, what happens?

Imagine being back in the ‘rushed off our feet’ scenario. All of our thinking and physical resources are being consumed by our focus on the job at hand. It’s a far cry from the situation we were in when we formed the intention to eat more healthily. We have that nagging feeling that we should eat something healthy but that white-bread-ham-sandwich-with-mayonnaise and packet of crisps and can of Fanta is so convenient and easy to eat that before you know it you’re left with a desk littered with wrappers, a slightly uncomfortable feeling in your tum and a head full of thoughts around doing better next time.

The point is that the context in which we form intentions is often far different to that in which we actually take action. At that point we often don’t have the resources to stop ourselves falling into the intention behaviour gap.

If intentions don’t have a great effect on our behaviour then what does?

There has to be something that drives our behaviour and ignores the intention behaviour gap, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done. That something is habit, and what influences our habits?

Researchers looking at the gap between the intention to eat healthily and actual behaviour found that the actions that the participants took were influenced by how they felt about their intended behaviour. The original intentions didn’t seem to have much influence at all. When our emotions are stirred (e.g. fear, anger, sadness and sometimes even joy and love) and we don’t have the immediate psychological and physical resources available to cope with them we put them to one side and rely on automatic behaviour, i.e. habits. It’s one of the reasons why change can be so difficult and the intention behaviour gap so easy to fall into.

What does this mean for us as coaches and what can we do to help our clients?

Working with emotions is never easy and it is one of the aspects that blur the boundary between coaching and therapy. What I have found useful is to explore with my clients what their automatic behaviour is and lightly touch the emotions that drive that behaviour.

For example, I recently had a client who set an aim for the session of taking action to work smarter rather than harder. For my self-employed client working smarter meant being more efficient and spending less time working. When we explored her habits and the feelings behind them she discovered that if she perceived that she wasn’t working hard she felt guilty. Her guilt drove her to work hard and prevented her from working smarter.

The action she went away with was simply to notice when she felt guilty. Hey presto, she noticed when old habits surfaced, rested more, became more efficient and achieved loads. When she reported this back to me it made me feel good too! Is it ok to admit that?!

As ever, try to spot where psychology is influencing your coaching practice.

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Posted in Blogs, Coaching & Psychology