What is insight?

Most people can remember and describe at least one powerful moment of sudden insight in their lives. The experience is often described as being ‘like a light bulb suddenly going on inside my head’ suggesting clues to the etymology of this word, the origins of which come from middle English and literally means “sight with the eyes of the mind,” (Harper 2010)

There are a number of dictionary definitions that broadly describe insight as “the capacity for deep understanding of the true nature of something” and also a general quality that an individual can possess (such as “He is an insightful person”). It also has a special meaning used within psychology which is “understanding or awareness of one’s mental or emotional condition”. What’s curious about insight is the typical way we arrive at it, and for this reason, insight is often defined as a single, specific mental event: “A penetrating and often sudden understanding, of a complex situation or problem” (Collins English Dictionary)

With insight, our whole conceptual framework seems to shift and we become aware of new solutions, previously out of our grasp but now so obvious it seems laughable we could not see before. Commonly referred to as a ‘Eureka’ moment, this term was supposedly named after the scientist Archimedes who famously exclaimed this word (meaning ‘I’ve found it!’) after getting in the bathtub and suddenly noticing the rising of the water level and realizing it would indicate his own body’s mass – thus discovering how to measure volume and density.

Why encourage it?

Any parent, teacher or people-helper professional knows the frustrating reality of trying to encourage another to understand something in a different and deeper way. Simply telling or showing is rarely enough to create an insight moment. It doesn’t matter how much you tell a person what the answer is, unless it is within their frame of reference they cannot see it as you do. Anne Sullivan, the teacher of famous deafblind Helen Keller, worked tirelessly for weeks showing the young Helen the signing symbols for common objects and events around her. But for Helen, at the time she didn’t even understand the most basic rule for language and communication, that is: everything has a name. Her moment of insight came as Anne held her hand under running water and signed the word WATER over and over again. Helen described the magical moment as: “…Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.” (AFB, 2022).

Most coaches work from the general principle that the best way to encourage new, insightful thinking is to ask questions, to enable clients to discover the answers for themselves. Erik de Haan has researched the coaching process and reveals the importance of ‘critical moments’ in a coaching session (De Haan at el, 2010a), providing evidence that coaching clients are not generally aware of or concerned about the framework or model the coach is using. What clients report as most helpful from their experience of coaching are new realizations and insights. De Haan reflects that the learning for coaches in practical terms is to “keep the focus with what clients are interested in most: realizations, emerging insight, and reflection” (De Haan et al, 2010b)

David Rock has been influential in bringing cognitive neuroscience into the practical domain of coaching, and describes the ‘Ah ha moment’ (2012), explaining how people solve different kinds of problems in different ways. For linear problem solving, such as mathematical questions, we bring a small selection of relevant data into our conscious ‘working memory’ rather like a mental whiteboard to manipulate the pieces of the puzzle until we calculate the answer. However for non-linear problems with no standard answer, we need to enlist the help of our non-conscious mind, which is vast in comparison to our conscious limit. Rock says: “Relatively speaking, if you think of your conscious processing capacity as the coins in your pocket, then your nonconscious processing capacity is the entire U.S. economy by comparison”. He highlights the dilemma of encouraging insight, as something that seems to be central to learning, yet can’t be forced.

However Rock claims that following a few simple rules can vastly increase the likelihood of having an insightful moment. Insights happen when being in a state of ‘internal mind wandering’, rather than directly focused on the external problem at hand. So, for people developers such as coaches, it’s about creating the right space for insight, encouraging the other person to have some quiet time and a quiet mind. And, simply allowing people to reflect. In a sense, giving them permission to pay attention to their own thoughts, rather than to the coach.

My work as a coach trainer and co-coaching organizer has meant that I have been privileged enough to listen to many hundreds of coaching sessions over the years. Although there is a huge variety of coaching approaches and models used, most coaches intend to be mostly non- directive, agreeing that people learn more effectively when they discover solutions for themselves. However, I frequently observe that although a coach believes they are being impartial and non-directive, their questions are not as open or bias-free as they might think.

Much research has been done into the effects of biased questions like these, and it appears that very subtle language influencers can distort the thinking of the receiver without any conscious awareness that this is the case. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies on eyewitness testimonies (Loftus and Palmer, 1974) helped highlight the misinformation effect, proving that a single ‘loaded’ word in a question could easily alter a person’s believed memory of a certain event. Interviewers asked people after watching a film clip of a car crash “About how fast were the cars going when they (hit/smashed/collided/bumped/contacted) each other?” Depending on which word in the bracket was used, the estimates of speed varied, from very fast for ‘smashed’ and ‘collided’, to slow for ‘bumped’ and ‘contacted’. And it is not only leading or closed questions that influence, even the use of hypothetical questions (Moore et al, 2011) exert unconscious bias.

Biased questions are stringently controlled within the legal profession and areas of research, however in other fields, without those controls bias creeps in unguarded, whether we like it or not. This can trigger a number of biased responses in the coachee, such the observer expectancy effect (where the coach unwitting pushes the coachee towards the answer they expect) or an expectation bias (coachee gives the answer they think the coach wants to hear) and confirmation bias (coachee searches only for information / ideas etc that match current preconceptions, both their own and those of the coach’s). The result is that the coachee’s focus of mental attention is heavily steered by the coach’s remit, which can stifle creative thinking and the emergence of truly new perspectives entirely owned by the coachee.

Even without words, we unwittingly direct attention to the areas that we deem useful and important, and our personal opinions can leak out through our voice tone and body language. Being truly impartial and non-directive as a coach applies to your unspoken intentions as well as your verbalized questions.

It is not easy to be truly present with someone and accepting them (and their thinking) just as they are, without any attempt to influence. But if achieved, it can be incredibly powerful.

Psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1961) expounded the value of giving the other person what he referred to as ‘unconditional positive regard’ And more recently, Nancy Kline (1999) highlighted the incredible power of listening without inputting, asserting that “giving good attention to people makes them more intelligent”.

To improve your own ability to stay out of the way of your client’s search for insight, I recommend that you learn more about the mental processes involved and the likely steps required to reach it. Armed with this information, you can have the confidence to take a different approach to coaching and be able to justify to the client why this approach is worthwhile.

Adapted extract from “Inciting Insight by Angela Dunbar” – read the paper here