Blog Post: Coaching Sensors and Intuitives

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Each of us has a preference for how we take in information and the kind of information we trust – what Carl Jung termed our perceiving function.  I’m a big picture person – what the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator labels as an “intuitive.”  If something can’t be said simply, concisely, and conceptually, I don’t value it.  Other people are wrong, um, I mean different.  They prefer to see the details and various aspects of a situation.   In MBTI lingo, they are “sensors” as they are aware of taking in information at the sensory level versus the conceptual level.

How do we coaches know if we are working with an intuitive or a sensor?  Nearly two in three people (65%) prefer sensing, so odds are you are coaching a sensor.  But beyond playing the odds, here are five hints:

  • How comfortable are they with more theoretical concepts? Sensors tend to be more comfortable with concrete facts while intuitives like concepts and theories.
  • What is their time preference? Intuitives are at ease thinking about the future since the future is a concept.  Sensors prefer focusing on the recent past and the here and now since those time periods are much more real than the future.
  • How do they use language? Sensors use language as a practical tool and will tend to be more literal, rely on facts, and incorporate real examples.  An intuitive will use language to express himself, be more figurative, and use analogies and metaphors.
  • How do they describe situations, events, and experiences? Sensors tend to dive into the details of the story without providing much context.  Intuitives prefer to describe the context or start with the “headline” before getting into the particulars.
  • What kind of work do they like? Because they thrive in the land of “not yet,” intuitives gravitate toward acquiring new skills they can leverage in strategic situations.   On the other hand, sensors want to use proven, reliable skills they already have in tactical situations.

Remember, even though every person has a preference for one or the other (sensing or intuition), the strength of preference can vary widely.  Only those with a very strong preference will demonstrate nearly all the telltale signs of a particular preference.

Okay, so how do we adapt our coaching to make the most of a client’s sensor-intuitive preference?  As with any personality preference, we want to go with the flow so long as the client’s preference is working for them.  In other words, meet them in their comfort zone in order to tap into their preferred way of taking in and trusting information.  That said, we must also be willing to go against the grain when their preference is preventing them from moving forward.  Remember, preference is neither a problem to be overcome nor a prison that limits what is possible for a client.  Any client can operate out of preference, they just prefer not to.

Here are three ways to adapt your coaching according to your client’s perceiving function:

Present/Future. Let intuitive clients start with the future and build their way back to the present.  Invite them to describe how they want things to be, set goals, dream dreams, and imagine where they are headed.  If you let them linger too long in the future, they can get stuck there.  Because the future is very real for intuitive clients, they   begin to believe that future is already real and fail to do the work needed to create it.  Be sure to leave ample time in the coaching session for exploring realistic options and designing practical actions that will bring about the desired future.

Since the future is not a real thing to sensors, don’t start with setting goals or envisioning where they would like to be.  Instead, let them get their bearings in the here and now and project the present into the future.  Often this will take the form of problem solving.  Instead of imagining a better future and then working to create it, sensors are more at home assessing what’s working and not working right now and then engaging in problem solving to make things work better.  Just make sure they are giving enough attention to the big picture to ensure that the problems they are solving are meaningful to them and/or their organization.

Language.  Sensors use language as a tool, and they prefer speech that is clear and straightforward.  Keep your questions practical and more immediate.  For example, I coach a manager of a manufacturing plant who is a strong sensor.  When asking him about his workforce, I don’t ask, “Who on your team is doing a great job?”  Instead, I ask him to list the names of the people on his team, then I ask him to give each of them two grades – one for performance (the quality of their work) and the other for conduct (how their behavior impacts those around them).  This grading system invites a more detailed and specific analysis instead of pushing him to intuitively identify top people.  In fact, in true sensor fashion, he developed a system for keeping track of performance and conduct so he would have real data he could rely on for making promotion decisions.

Intuitive clients use language to express themselves, and they prefer figurative language, metaphors, analogies, and word pictures.  Let your questions invite expression, exploration, and imagination.  For example, I coach a strong intuitive who serves in a non-profit.  I recently started a coaching session with her by asking her to pick a television show that describes how things are going.   She replied, “Well it certainly isn’t ‘Happy Days.’  I suppose it’s more like that show ‘Hoarders.’  Everything’s a mess and I don’t even know where to start.”  The interesting thing is that she later confessed that she’s never actually watched the show “Hoarders.”  Nonetheless, she was able to make a connection with the chaos of her situation and what she intuitively assumed was the premise of the show.

Possibilities/Reality.  Intuitive clients are much more comfortable imagining possibilities beyond the current reality, including those well beyond current reality.  For example, I have an intuitive client who assumes he can do (or learn to do) almost anything.  When I started coaching him and his team, his company had one retail location.  I asked him where he envisioned the company being in five years and without blinking an eye, he described a scenario of 500 locations nationwide.  I could sense his team members rolling their eyes in disbelief.  His enthusiasm for possibility needed to be tempered with practicality, otherwise he was going to lose their trust.

Clients who prefer sensing will not get lost in the clouds of possibility, instead, they can lock themselves in the prison of current reality.  One of my clients runs a machine shop.  Recently he described how they have a lack of skilled employees for a key role.  He described the problem very clearly, but when I asked him to explore options, he could only see the limited resources he currently has.  He declared over and over, “We don’t have anybody else who could do that job.”  When I asked him where he could find someone, he went through his mental rolodex and came up empty again.  I pointed out that the person who would fill that role is someone he doesn’t yet know.  Finally, he was motivated to think of ways to find someone beyond his current circle of relationships.

All people are capable of envisioning a preferred future and doing the necessary things to move forward.  Meet your clients where they are.  Leverage the strength of their perceiving preference.  Stretch them into their non-preferred way of taking in and trusting information, but keep in mind that it is a stretch.  If their preference is different than yours, don’t grow impatient or think they are “wrong.”  Instead, remember that you, too, can stretch beyond your preferred perceiving function to be the coach they need you to be.

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