This research used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith, Larkin & Flowers, 2009) to examine Christian counsellors’ understanding and use of intuition in their work as therapists. Intuition is often used instinctively, and without examination, in therapy, but is a phenomenon that is little understood in the context of Christian counselling. It raises questions around its efficacy as an intervention, and the ethical implications of working with it. This research aimed to specifically address those issues by understanding Christian counsellors’ experience of working with intuition. Existing research was reviewed and critically examined in relation to the research question. Subsequently, data were collected from semi-structured interviews with four participants, all of whom were experienced Christian counsellors. Literature and research demonstrate that there are many factors that influence an individual’s ability to make sound intuitive decisions. This research concluded that for some Christian counsellors their intuitive decisions were almost always accurate, and that they were able to develop strong working alliances with their clients from their use of intuition, allowing them to work at a deeper level. It was also found that previous experiences of intuition impacted on participants’ confidence in working with it in therapy. The powerful impact that intuition had on participants is worthy of further research.
Intuition is often used by therapists without conscious awareness in both their daily lives and in the counselling process. Yet, it is also often seen as untrustworthy, and considered to be untrustworthy in decision making (Bonabeau, 2003). However, many therapists trust in it implicitly and without question, but is it wise to place such trust in something that may be unreliable?
As a relatively unexplored area of research within the counselling profession, it seems important to discover more perspectives on Christian counsellors’ experience of working with intuition. In this study, I used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA; Smith, Larkin & Flowers, 2009) as the methodology of research as it is a good fit with the ethos of the counselling profession (Bright & Harrison, 2013; p. 28; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). The research question was: ‘How do counsellors with a Christian faith understand and use intuition in their work as therapists?’ This research aimed to gain a better understanding of Christian therapists’ experience of working with intuition. The understanding may inform ways in which therapists can work with intuition more sensitively and ethically for the best interests of their clients.
In this literature review I discuss current literature specifically regarding intuition within counselling, looking at current understanding as to how the brain processes intuition, the awareness practitioners have about the different elements involved in experiencing the phenomenon, and the ways in which individual’s personal experiences may impact on their perception of intuition.
Welling suggests that ‘Intuition provides a valuable complementary instrument for the psychotherapist and other professionals to go beyond theory-driven activity’ (Welling, 2005; p. 43). Fox conducted research in 2016 to establish the success rate of counsellors working with intuition with their clients. He found that ‘intuition was apparent in the way that the counsellors leaned collectively toward certain directions to take with each client’ (Fox, cited in Shallcross, 2016: para. 4), indicating that counsellors seem to work using intuition for a significant amount of their practice. As such, it would seem very important to understand its processes effectively, which is part of the aim of this research. Also, there seems to be a gap in the literature in regard to how intuition manifests itself for Christians counsellors making ethical decisions specifically within the field of counselling and psychotherapy.
The mysterious nature of intuition seems to lend itself to ethical questions. If it is elusive, how can we ethically rely upon it in a decision-making process? And if we do, what implications might there be? Williams and Irving argue that if therapists were operating in a way in which they could not provide a rationale for their insights and understandings then they would be regarded as unethical practitioners (1996). However, that understanding could potentially seem too simplistic, as it negates the unconscious processes involved in working with intuition which cannot be consciously known. Interestingly, Bonabeau argues that ‘intuition is a fickle and undependable guide’ (2003; para. 3) and suggests that for complex decision-making processes logic and reason are more helpful strategies.
In terms of making ethical decisions using intuition, Sonenshein puts forward the ‘sense-making intuition model’ (Sonenshein, 2007, p. 6)’. He posits ‘that ethical judgment, in opposition to rationalist approaches, is first intuitive. This is due to psychological attitudes that drive an individual’s judgment with emotions and feelings before other kinds of cognitive reasoning’ (Charpateau, 2011, p. 4). This model seems to rely upon an individual’s lived experience and, as such, the ethical decisions that arise from using the model will be based on those subjective experiences. This is in opposition to a more rationalist approach, which would incorporate external facets in the decision-making process, taking the source of the ethical decision away from the individual’s subjective experience. This raises questions around the process of making intuitive judgements such as what those decisions should be based on.
Four levels of awareness
Gerard categorised intuition into four separate and distinct levels of awareness; physical, emotional, spiritual and intuitive knowledge (Gerard (1972), cited in Clark, 1973). A question relevant to my research might be whether all four of these forms of intuition are equally valid within psychotherapy. It also seems particularly important to consider the potential implications, both positive and negative, for Christian counsellors working with the spiritual element of intuition.
Kahneman and Klein describe naïve intuition (Kahneman & Klein, 2009) as making intuitive decisions that are likely to be unreliable. In contrast, Patterson and Eggleston describe the ‘expert intuitor’ as having ‘a base of experiences stored in long-term memory that enables successful decision making. It is thought that this experience base is what differentiates expert intuition from the misguided naïve intuition’ (Patterson & Eggleston, 2017; p. 98). Understanding the elements that make up the ‘expert intuitor’ (Patterson & Eggleston, 2017) may help to avoid potential ethical pitfalls when working with intuition. However, I question whether this understanding alone is enough to ensure safe practice when working with intuition.
To understand the processing of intuition further, writers have distinguished between two different forms of processing intuition; inferential and holistic. Inferential processing ‘relies on automated responses based on a quick recognition of memory patterns accumulated through experience’ (Sinclair, 2011; p. 5) and holistic processing, which ‘processes information non-sequentially, in a jigsaw puzzle-like manner, deals with synthesis of unconnected memory fragments into a new information structure.’ Holistic processing is thought to be a more sophisticated and accurate form of processing intuition (Sinclair, 2011). So, it would seem particularly beneficial to understand the impact of holistic processing in regards to choosing therapeutic interventions in counselling.
Emotional effect of intuitive decision making
Kirkebøen and Nordbye conducted quantitative research aimed at understanding the emotional effect of making intuitive decisions in groups of psychologists and engineers. Their research suggested ‘that intuitive choices give a stronger feeling of responsibility for the outcome than non-intuitive choices. Decision makers who end up with a positive or a negative outcome after choosing the intuitive option are, in the studies, consistently anticipated to experience stronger feelings of responsibility (credit or guilt) than decision makers who obtain the same outcome after choosing the non-intuitive alternative’ (Kirkebøen & Nordbye, 2017; p. 3). They also found that participants ‘judged in retrospect the outcomes of their intuitive choices as more positive than the outcomes of their non-intuitive ones, suggesting that they were personally more involved in their intuitive decisions and that people are more emotionally affected by the outcomes of intuitive choices than by those of non-intuitive choices’. Interestingly the research also demonstrated that the increased emotional effect participants experienced as a result of failed intuitive choices may ‘moderate somewhat the tendency to go with one’s gut in decision making’ (2017; p. 9,10), and as such counter-act the potential of intuitive bias. Intuition bias is described by Kirkbøen and Nordbye as ‘a tendency [for people] to overemphasise intuitions and follow them, even when they should not’ (Kirkbøen and Nordbye, 2017; p. 10).
The accuracy of intuitive decisions
Quantitative research from the University of New South Wales (2016) demonstrated through participants being unconsciously exposed to emotional and physiological stimuli that over time participants became more accurate with their predictions indicating that the repeated use of relying upon intuition may have the potential of achieving more accurate results. (Lufityanto, Donkin & Pearson, 2016). However, the research was limited to three of the four levels of awareness as referred to by Gerard (Gerard, cited in Clark, 1973); physical, emotional and intuitive knowledge but did not include spiritual awareness.
Trauma and intuition
Emotional trauma is known to impact individual’s perception of intuition. People that have experienced traumatic events are often reported after the event to have commented on a ‘hunch’ or ‘knowing’ that something bad was going to happen, which is also often accompanied with a strong feeling of guilt (Nader, 2001). Yet trauma itself is known to significantly reduce an individual’s ability to make accurate intuitive decisions (Levine, 2010). Fallon suggests that it is ‘virtually impossible to know the difference between intuition and a trauma-response’ (Fallon, 2016). This clearly demonstrates that the accuracy of intuitive decisions made post or during trauma may lack validity and helpfulness, and, for example, lead to a feeling of confusion and a deeper sense of guilt for the individual. However, the ability to act on a hunch is also a criterion for discerning an individual’s level of emotional resilience on the Connor-Davidson resilience scale (Davidson, 2005), suggesting that individuals who are particularly emotionally resilient have a higher ability to act on their intuition. However, it is also the case that individuals with high anxiety levels often have a sense of foreboding as part of their anxiety (Migala, 2020). With such different variants affecting intuition’s validity it seems vital for therapists to have a clear understanding of these variants and strong self-awareness when working with their own intuition so as to best serve their clients.
Christianity and intuition
Mishlove writes that many famous inventors conclude that intuition is connected with ‘higher spiritual sources’ (Mishlove, 1995). And Alex Pattakos writes that ‘the mystic face of intuition depends as much—if not more—upon faith as it does reason. Accepting, if not entirely understanding, this aspect of intuition is a sine qua non of manifesting our spiritual selves. The mystic face of intuition is the mystic within us.’(Pattakos. 2018). Both these writers seem to elude towards spirituality being the source of the mysterious nature of intuition. Understanding the spiritual element of intuition therefore seems particularly relevant for counsellors working with intuition within their Christian faith.
In our postmodern culture, and more specifically the culture within psychotherapy, we are consistently looking to justify interventions in order to prove ethical practice. However, in doing so I wonder if we have potentially lost sight of the significance and importance of wander, which can only come from the mysterious and the unknown.
Stark described a taxonomy of religious experiences ranging from the confirmatory (feelings of awe or reverence associated with a sudden ‘knowing’ that one’s beliefs are true) (Stark, 1965, cited in Cook, 2015), which indicates that the role of intuition can be significant in religious experiences. This ‘knowing’, however is entirely based on the individual’s subjective experience, so whilst the individual ‘knows’ something to be true, it paradoxically remains subjective and therefore also unknown as an experience to others.
Vasconcelos applies Christian intuition to decision making processes in business. He argues that ‘intuition and prayer are two faces of the same coin, and both forms of decision processes (e.g. rational and non-rational analysis) might coexist perfectly in an integrative frame’ (Vasconcelos, 2009; p. 945). This could be regarded as a helpful platform to incorporate Christian intuition to decision making in other areas. However, as it is in relation to a business model, it may not necessarily lend itself well to the field of counselling and psychotherapy.
From the literature and quantitative research discussed, there are many different avenues that could be pursued for further research, particularly within Christian counselling as this seems to be an under developed area of research. All empirical research found in the area of intuition was quantitative, highlighting a need for phenomenological qualitative research to add depth of human experience to discussions in relation to intuition within the counselling profession.
The research question leant itself to a qualitative approach in which the aim is to understand ‘the quality and texture of experience’ (Willig, 2013; p. 8) of intuition for therapists in their therapy. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used which ‘aims to gain a better understanding of the nature and quality of phenomena as they present themselve.’ (Willig, 2013, p. 86). Within this method the researcher’s perception is also reflexively considered. But as Smith states, the researcher ‘will have to try to suspend or bracket off your preconceptions when it comes to conducting interviews’ (Smith, 2012; p. 42). As intuition has formed a significant part of my own journey, IPA’s method of reflexively allowing for previously held views whilst aiming to bracket in order to seek to understand participants experience fits my research well.
Consistent with the IPA approach, only a small number of participants were recruited for the research. Four participants were interviewed using semi-structured interviews via online platforms. All participants were experienced Christian therapists. However, the Christian backgrounds and theological beliefs of the participants varied considerably, providing a broad mix of ideas.
The three super-ordinate themes that emerged are; Christianity and intuition, understanding of intuition, and intuition in therapy. The subordinate themes were identified through the process of data analysis (see Table 1) and key data will be presented.
Table 1: Super-ordinate and subordinate themes.
Understanding of intuition
A psychological understanding of intuition derived from participants describing how intuition had impacted their personal lives, which seemed to directly impact on their psychological understanding of intuition.
It is worth noting that in the interviews, participants highlighted the lack of clear evidence that seems to accompany it. For example, Jacqueline said, ‘It’s like knowing. Without actually having any evidence.’ Similarly, Linda said, ‘it’s that kind of knowing something without necessarily knowing that you know it’. Owing to intuition’s apparent allusive nature, it seemed difficult for some participants to identify exactly what elements make it up. Jacqueline commented, ‘There is an element of mystery to it. Well, we can’t have all the answers can we.’ From this sense of both knowing and not knowing that seems to accompany intuition, the sub-ordinate theme awareness was derived.
It seemed hard for participants to verbalise an awareness as to exactly how intuition is processed, and which components make it up. Jessica mused over different possibilities saying, ‘I wonder whether intuition is actually just that you observe very keenly and almost don’t know you’ve done it.’ Lisa also reflected on this saying, saying, ‘our soul and our understanding of spirit, you know, the whole complexity of who we are. I mean, it’s instinct. And I would just find it quite hard to define.’
Although it seemed hard to understand the ways in which intuition is formulated and which components make it up, in contrast participants seemed very clear as to the ways in which intuition presented to them personally. Sally said, ‘I experience it as a flash of light, but as a moment of absolute clarity.’ She also described her experience of receiving intuition as an almost overwhelming urge, saying, ‘it’s just more the overwhelming feeling that I had to bring it into the room. Yeah, I couldn’t have finished that session without it. It was really strong that she that’s what she [the client] needed.’
It seemed from all the interviews that participants had all been impacted by intuition in either positive or negative ways in their personal lives. Jaqueline described the pleasure she experienced in being on the receiving end of another person’s intuition:‘there was another lady who I’d never met, put her hand up and said, I think we should say a prayer for… So they said this prayer for me. Well, I thought that was amazing that they would do that.’
In contrast, Lisa describes her potential distrust in intuition owing to a negative experience in another person using it, saying, ‘It’s probably created a bit of a wariness in me around it. Not, not closing off to it by any means, but just maybe more of a wariness than I would have had had I not experienced that.’
For Jessica, however, her experience of intuition seemed more closely linked to her innate personality than specific memorable experiences. She said, ‘it’s sort of who I am, I can’t imagine doing things any differently. Probably I’m an intuitive person anyway.’
It started to become apparent that participants’ understanding of intuition seemed predominantly linked to their personal experiences; both experiences that they had with intuition in their past, and from experience in working with it and relying upon it in their own lives.
From both the known and unknown nature of intuition, and different life experiences participants had in relation to intuition, it became clear that trust was also necessary factor in working with intuition. The level of trust in intuition, however, varied between participants.
Jessica found trust in it easy as she relies heavily on her feelings in most aspects of life. For example, ‘For me, it’s normally more trustworthy, or as trustworthy, perhaps as what I pick up just through simple listening.’ Interestingly, for two participants, their trust in intuition was strongly linked to their relationship with God. Jane said, ‘there’s a sense that I’m in the right place, doing the right thing, that’s where the Lord wants me to be.’
Christianity and intuition
Despite all the participants sharing the same faith, the ways in which their faith impacted their understanding and ways of working with intuition seemed to vary considerably.
Three out of the four participants regarded intuition as a spiritual gift. For example, Jessica said, ‘I think intuition is a spiritual kind of thing, but I do think probably as well there are observable things that go together with that, that strengthen it’, whereas Jaqueline was less sure. She said, ‘I don’t know where it comes from I mean, that to me is the question isn’t it? Is that a gift?’
All four participants described their work as being inspired by God in their work as therapists. Sally describes God calling her to be a counsellor: ‘I knew in the words ‘stand beside the broken’, God called me to be a counsellor.’ In connection with Pattakos’ belief that intuition is ‘a manifestation of our spiritual selves’ (Pattakos, 2018. Para. 5), the participants all seemed to connect their intuition to their relationship with God. Lisa, wonders however, if every counsellor has the same access to God’s insights: ‘I also think that probably God is at work through, I would say for therapists who don’t see themselves as Christian, because for me, God’s call is for all people, you know.’
It became clear from the interviews that spiritual discernment seemed an important part of working with intuition. Sally said, ‘just because the knowledge comes from God doesn’t give me the right ethically to impose it on the client’. And Jaqueline put it this way: ‘I do remember that sifting well, and thinking what I’m hearing. Is that true? Is that not true? And you know, separating the wheat from the chaff kind of thing going on.’
Intuition in therapy
This super-ordinate theme emerged from exploring the ways in which participants work with intuition in therapy. Within this broader topic emerged three sub-ordinate themes.
The therapeutic relationship seemed to be of central significance and relevance to all the participants in terms of the ways in which intuition impacts therapeutically. Jessica commented that her use of intuition aids the therapeutic relationship significantly:
‘I think it helps me build quite a strong, quite deep bond quite quickly. I think intuition and tuning in to people, which I see as almost the same thing that I related to enables you to work more quickly, get to the nub more quickly’
None of the participants commented on the therapeutic relationship as being hindered by their use of intuition, although Jessica did comment that at times the counsellor could be considered vulnerable owing to them being exposed to harmful intuitive insights:
‘Maybe it is a vulnerability in a way, because if you’re picking things up from people and you pick up something that makes you feel uncomfortable then you’ve got to deal with that, you know. Try and work it through.’
All the participants were mindful of the potential of harm when working with intuition. And as such they all described working with intuition implicitly rather than explicitly in order to minimise risk. Lisa said:
‘I feel like I would want to offer it and never force it on someone. So I would never want to throw it at someone and just very gently want to say, you know, hold my hand out almost like and say, “You know, I wonder if you could live with it like this…” I think there’s a danger that we can hold on to our intuition too strongly without exquisitely listening to what the client might actually be saying and respecting their autonomy and their perception of what’s happening.’
Another participant alluded to intuition being a part of her integrity or self-respect (BACP, 2018) as a therapist, saying, ‘I can’t work any other way because tuning in and that very, very kind of intuitive. Tuning in to people is what happens. Perhaps that’s who I am.’
There was a clear awareness from all the participants of the ethical implications involved in working with intuition. Sally said; ‘I think how you use the intuition is the essential ethical issue.’ It was also suggested that the innate power of the therapist demands a level of responsibility from the therapist to use it wisely to avoid coercion. There was also a sense that being as intuition is God-given, it provides positive outcomes rather than negative ones. Susan said:
‘I haven’t been given anything that would harm anyone. No more often, it brings absolute breakthrough. Or enables us to go into a far deeper level and look at the root cause rather than the presenting issue’
Understanding of intuition
What seemed particularly apparent from the interviews was participants paradoxical sense of both knowing and not knowing what intuition is. The paradox expressed by participants between experiencing intuition very acutely whilst also not knowing how it manifests seemed to lead participants to become curious as to why that might be, perhaps alluding to a potential concern that intuition may be ‘a fickle and undependable guide’ (Bonabeau, 2003). However, acceptance of the mystery surrounding intuition was also expressed by a participant. The Christian understanding of mystery is described as ‘something that is revealed for our understanding, but that we never understand exhaustively, because it leads into depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed– but they are also opened’ (Ware, 1979, cited in Beeching, 2019; p. 95). Begging the question, do we need to understand intuition in all its facets to work effectively with it in a counselling context or is it sufficient to work with it without understanding it fully?
Despite having difficulty in explaining in a theoretical sense how and why intuition manifests, in contrast, all participants were able to clearly articulate how they experience it personally. In some cases, very powerfully, and in all four areas of awareness as defined by (Gerard, 1973). With such powerful experiences it would seem clear why therapists may feel inclined to trust in intuition’s validity. However, the lack of theoretical understanding surrounding intuition highlighted by participants demonstrates a need for more education to help therapists understand the elements that make up the ‘expert intuitor’ position (Patterson & Eggleston. 2017), and avoid the potential of bias in intuition.
With all participants having a Christian faith they all perceived their intuition to various extents, to be a form of divine revelation (Wolterstorff, 1995). This spiritual aspect of intuition does not in itself alter Simmons and Nelson’s argument that intuition manifests with subjective ease (Simmons & Nelson, 2006), but it does seem to add a new perspective to intuition bias not yet explored. It seems to question whether spirituality should be understood differently to other subjective experiences and, if so, the impact that may have on making intuitive decisions based on spiritual awareness.
For the participants, the source of their trust in their intuition was clear. One participant said ‘the trust has come with knowing Jesus’. This trust was not without discernment however; as Sally said, ‘my intuition may well be God inspired but needs to be tested’. This ability to discern demonstrates Christian maturity, ‘who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil’ (Hebrews 5:14). Their ability to draw upon different life experiences indicates that these participants may be operating from the expert intuitor position (Patterson & Eggleston, 2017) rather than the naïve intuitor position (Kahneman & Klein, 2009). However, spiritual growth is not yet a criteria for discerning an individual’s ability to operate within the expert intuitor position, but perhaps this indicates a need for it to be considered. In this context, spiritual growth may be of central importance to the development of religious/spiritual practitioners, and may therefore regard it as important to their practice.
The participants seemed highly influenced by their experiences of intuition in the past. Those that had positive experiences of it seemed to trust in it more, and with accurate results, and the participant that had negative past experiences of it seemed to take a more cautious approach in working with it in her practice. This seems to back up Kirkebøen and Nordbye’s research that suggests our trust in our intuition is largely based upon the strong emotion of credit or guilt that we experience in relation to past intuitive decisions (2017). However, the emotional effect for the current participants was based on experiences from their long-term past, which differs from Kirkebøen and Nordbye’s research, which focuses on participants’ emotional response from their immediate past experiences. This research may therefore indicate a correlation between past experiences and current perceptions of intuition.
This correlation fits with many theoretical approaches to counselling, which indicate that experiences from the past dictate the decisions we make in the present (McLeod, 2003). However, trauma and other life experiences are also known to significantly alter an individual’s instinctive ability to make accurate intuitive decisions (Levine, 2010). With many counsellors using intuition for a significant amount of their practice, (Fox, cited in Shallcross, 2016) it seems particularly important for practitioners to understand how previous experiences effect the accuracy of intuitive decisions they may make in counselling. This understanding could come from a combination of self-awareness, and training informed by further research around the ways in which past experiences effect current intuitive decisions made by practitioners.
Christianity and Intuition
All the participants regarded their intuition, to varying degrees, as manifestations of their spiritual selves (Pattakos, 2018). And as such was embraced as part of their Christian spirituality, and using intuition in their work was part of choosing a life leading towards the Holy Spirit (Wong, 2009). Some of the participants described their intuition as a powerfully God-inspired valuable resource that assists clients enormously. One participant, currently working only with Christian clients, expressed a belief that her intuition builds her reputation, adding weight to Penny’s argument that there is a ‘koinonic power’ in belonging to the same community or tribe, stating that ’a sense of belonging and shared identity can be a source of power’ (Penny, 2018; p. 9).
Yalom and other writers, however, have criticised this power derived from spiritual sources, claiming it can be used unethically on vulnerable people (Yalom, 2005). However, the participants all seemed to have a strong awareness of the potentially damaging effect it could have on clients and as such all felt that they could work ethically with spiritual intuition with both Christians and clients from other backgrounds. This seems to suggest that the participants believed they can successfully hold their own beliefs whilst also honouring the other. Interestingly, though, the participants that were more explicit in their intuitive interventions seemed to work mainly with Christian clients, perhaps strengthening Scott’s research, which suggests that Christian counsellors work more effectively with Christian clients (Scott, 2014).
Spiritual discernment /ethical implications
An awareness of the potential ethical implications in using intuition in their work was strong for the participants, and as such were all very tentative in using it with clients. So, it would seem that for these participants there was no tension between the ethics they subscribe to and using intuition congruently and with integrity. It was clear that the participants had gone through a process of growth and development in working with spiritual intuition and as such may be operating within Fowler’s conjunctive stage of development in which an individual is able to accept paradoxes (2000). This would increase their ability to hold clients’ potentially opposite views as different but equally as valid as their own. Research suggests that the modality counsellors are trained in impacts the way they encounter spirituality in the work (Ross, 2016; p. 25) and having all studied at the same Christian organisation may therefore have similarly influenced their approach to integrating faith into their practice. Potentially the findings might have been different if participants were selected from different Christian training backgrounds.
With the participants all having the same faith position, and myself as a Christian researcher, it could be argued that we all share an implicit bias (Slife & Reber, 2009) towards a belief that healthy integration with regards to spiritual intuition is possible, which may not be shared by therapists from other backgrounds. This highlights the need for further research with participants from other faith positions in order to gain a different understanding as to how spiritual intuition impacts them.
Scott suggests that cultural awareness is a solution to working effectively with spiritual intuition with clients of different backgrounds (Scott, 2014). This may be part of the answer to working effectively with spiritual intuition, however it does not address the power dynamic involved in working with it, both positively and negatively. Vasconcelos asserts that the wonder of intuition can assist clients and regards it in the same category as prayer. He states that ‘intuition and prayer are two faces of the same coin, and both forms of decision processes (e.g. rational and non-rational analysis) might coexist perfectly in an integrative frame’ (Vasconcelos, 2009; p. 945). However, whilst prayer is widely understood to be a very controversial topic within the field of counselling, and as such a lot of writing and research has been applied to it and the ethics and power dynamics around it debated in order to improve practice, intuition remains largely unexplored in the counselling profession and as such may be open to inadvertent power dynamic issues. However, the participants involved in this research were very aware of the potential of power dynamic issues and as such seemed to work ethically and safely with spiritual intuition with both their Christian clients and clients from other backgrounds.
Intuition in Therapy
Substantial research demonstrates that above and beyond any single therapeutic approach, the quality of the therapeutic relationship is the most effective catalyst for therapeutic change (Dermendzhiyska, 2020). As such it seems particularly important to understand the ways in which intuition impacts upon the therapeutic relationship. Two of the participants believed it to have a significantly positive impact on the relationship. This supports Robins argument that intuition creates unity and intimacy in relationships (Robins, 2010).
Many therapists’ philosophies of counselling are underpinned by Rogers’ core conditions, one of which is empathy. (Rogers, 1977) and Clarkson writes that empathy is crucial in developing a strong working alliance (Clarkson, 2003). Interestingly, some of the participants found little to no distinction between advanced empathy and intuition suggesting that intuition may be strongly linked with advanced empathy, which was found by the participants to be unanimously beneficial in regards to the therapeutic relationship.
Working with intuition also seemed to benefit clients in unexpected ways. One participant commented that owing to her use of intuition in therapy she is able to work with clients on a shorter-term basis than she would otherwise, and another participant commented that she receives more work than she would otherwise due to her use of intuition. With such positive outcomes the benefits of using intuition with clients seems clear, and supports Tan’s notion that there is therapeutic power in Spirit-filled therapy (Tan, 2011). However, another participant was wary of the power of intuition that she believed can be used to damage through a potential misuse of power. Another participant commented on the discomfort she experiences with clients giving her too much power in the relationship which she feels is misplaced and belongs to God. The mixed feelings around the power of working with intuition perhaps adds weight to the notion that some people may be better able to make accurate intuitive decisions than others. The participants were clear that being led by the Holy Spirit was seen as a crucial and positive element to all the accurate intuitive decisions they made in therapy. This very positive aspect of this spiritual element of intuition seems to support the need for further research to understand it in more depth.
Etherington writes that ‘research as a process of deep and reflective learning has the potential to alter and recast both our personal and professional identities’ (Etherington, 2004, cited in Bright & Harrison, 2013; p. 14). The deep reflection involved in conducting this research has altered my own perceptions of working with intuition. I have always considered myself to be a very intuitive person, and have made intuitive decisions with ease. Through the process of conducting this research I feel I have gained a much deeper understanding of the topic, and as such now understand myself as having moved from Broadwell’s position of being unconsciously incompetent at the beginning of this project to somewhere between unconsciously competent and consciously competent now (Broadwell, 1969). As such I approach working with it in my own clinical practice with more caution with clients that do not share the same faith as me than I have previously. I am particularly more mindful of the power dynamics and ethical implications involved in working with spiritual intuition, and how this may differ with clients of different faith positions to my own owing to our different philosophical starting points regarding intuition.
I was aware when conducting the interviews of a general feeling of shared enthusiasm for the subject which I worked to bracket (Smith, 2012; p. 42), but may have been apparent and influenced discussions. I was also aware of areas in which my own perceptions of intuition were challenged by the answers the participants gave. But ultimately this provided deeper explorations than would have been possible otherwise, particularly in relation to the super-ordinate theme Christianity and intuition. It allowed me to journey through the topic with openness and curiosity in order to ‘attempt to capture particular experiences as experienced for particular people’ (Smith, Flowers & Larkin. 2009; p. 16).
Limitations to my research
All the participants were recruited from the same college. Also, with myself, my supervisor and participants all being Christian and involved with the same Christian organisation, the research could be said to lack balance and spiritual diversity. The participants were all white British women of a similar age, meaning that there was a lack of cultural diversity and age range in this research. The participants were also all from Anglican, charismatic or Baptist backgrounds, which may influence their perception of spiritual intuition. (As the views of Christians from other denominational backgrounds may differ.)
My research focused on the counsellors understanding of intuition, so for deeper understanding around the impact on the therapeutic relationship further research is needed to also understand the clients’ experience of intuition being used in the work.
Implications for further research
It was clear that all the participants in this research were operating within the spiritual level of awareness (Gerard, cited in Clark, 1973). This research has raised awareness of the implications of working within this area, particularly in regards to the ethical implications, and the impact on the therapeutic relationship when working in this area. It demonstrates the need for more understanding around spiritual intuition, and ethical ways of working with it to be included in training programmes, particularly within Christian organisations. My research highlights the possibility of accurate decisions being made through the promptings of The Holy Spirit. As a minimally researched area, further research is needed particularly in regards to working with spiritual intuition with both clients with a Christian faith and other faith positions, for more comprehensive understanding around the accuracy of intuitive decisions led by The Holy Spirit. One possible way of doing this might be for practitioners to apply their spiritual intuition interventions to The Churchill Framework (2021), and using this as a guide to work through the potential ethical implications of working with intuition in order to best provide structured, unbiased interventions in their client work.
This research opened up ethical implications of working with intuition, and particularly addressed the ethical tensions that surround working with spiritual intuition. Whilst my research addresses them, further research is needed specifically in this area in order to further understand ways of working with the tensions that surround it in the most helpful way for clients, both for Christians and people of other faith positions.
Focusing on how intuition is experienced by counsellors with a Christian faith has brought about understanding in the areas in which spirituality can play a part in intuitive decision making in therapy. The research process has shown that the participants previous experiences of intuition significantly impact the ways in which they encounter it in their work. For the participants that were confident in working with their intuition it was found to be a powerful intervention, and decisions that were made based on it were thought to be almost always accurate. The use of intuition was also found to be transformative in developing close therapeutic relationships. Intuitive decisions that were considered by participants to be experienced spiritually seemed to have a very positive impact on clients.
The research brought up questions surrounding the ethics of using intuition in therapy, particularly in relation to working with both Christian clients and clients from beyond the Christian community, with both religious and secular views. As my research only focuses on Christian counsellors’ experience of intuition in therapy, the need for further research regarding the ways in which clients from Christian and other faith groups experience their therapists’ use of intuition seems important.
Dallos and Velere write that research can ‘contribute to the ongoing tapestry of what therapy has been, is, and may become’ (Dallos & Velere, 2005, cited in Bright & Harrison, 2013). My research has led to a deeper understanding around the ways in which four Christian counsellors experience intuition in their work, including experiences of very positive outcomes for their clients. The research provides insights into ways of working with intuition in therapy, and also highlights the need for further understanding in the areas highlighted. This would allow counsellors to build upon current knowledge, in order to gain further understanding to develop the skills needed to work with intuition in an ethical, competent manner for the benefit of clients.
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About the Author
Victoria Owen, MA Therapeutic Counselling and Psychotherapy, Dip level 4 Counselling
Vicky runs her private practice from Lightwater in Surrey, working as a counsellor with a diverse range of clients. She is also a clinical supervisor to counsellors, as well as a pastoral supervisor to people in leadership roles within ministry. She is also a tutor on BA Year 1 Counselling course at Waverley Abbey College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2022 Victoria Owen