Multiple Intelligences: Eight Ways Coaches and Clients are Smart

by Dario Nardi

“I always do well, but I still worry I’m not as smart as my peers,” confesses a Senior Director of Technology at a leading software company. “In management meetings they zing ideas around so quickly my head spins.”

Is intelligence measured, as this client believes, by how fast you talk and respond? As a coach, how rich is your definition of smart? And, how does your concept of “smart” open up potential for your clients?

Traditionally, intelligence has been understood as a single measure of ability that is largely immutable from birth. In this view, smart people have greater horsepower that can be applied to any situation. The smarter you are, as measured on an IQ test, the better you can handle anything in your path. Given research that people with high IQs did better in school, regardless of the subject, this view took hold and shaped our popular understanding of intelligence.

Yet, as coaches know, how you frame the question powerfully affects the answer. Since most schooling draws on the same narrow range of performance that IQ tests measure, that correlation means little in understanding “smart” in everyday life and work.

Advances in neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, and child development show us the “one horse” view is tragically flawed. Flawed because it can’t account for performance outside of school, across the full range of human activity — intelligence as a chef, as an author, as an athlete, as a mother. Tragic because we dampen human potential as long as we believe there is one linear scale of intelligence.

Many of us who care about human potential understand this intuitively, yet we have no other way of talking about it.

To find a better way, Harvard Education professor Howard Gardner spent years putting together research and wisdom about intelligence across disciplines and across cultures. He synthesized what he learned in his model of “Multiple Intelligences” (MI). Using rigorous empirical criteria, he has recognized eight distinct intelligences. (See The Eight Intelligences, below).

This body of work advances how we can conceptualize intelligence, from “how smart you are” to “how you are smart.” In the view, “smart” means using the best of yourself to succeed in your environment. Furthermore, the way you succeed may be very different than the way someone else succeeds at the same task. Intelligences are typically used in combination, with distinctive combinations enabling different people to achieve similar results. For example, any top athlete will need highly developed Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence; beyond this, some athletes may be powered by the inner drive of Intrapersonal intelligence, others by the acumen of Logical-Mathematical intelligence.

Broad recognition of Multiple Intelligences is spreading slowly outside academia and teacher training. In our experience, surprisingly few executives, leadership development trainers, or coaches are aware of this richer view. The obvious exception is Emotional Intelligence, which is widely discussed but less fully understood. In popular usage, EI maps decently to Interpersonal and Intrapersonal intelligence, although Gardner sees a role for emotions across all the intelligences.

Why might you as a coach care about definitions of intelligence? After all, you’re aiming to support and develop your clients, not test or label them.

We’ve found Multiple Intelligences a powerful perspective for supporting adult learning, including coaching in business and personal contexts. MI is useful whenever clients want to know how to recognize and leverage their talents, blaze their own path to high performance, develop and appreciate themselves, and value and guide others.

Here’s one way to apply Multiple Intelligences to coaching:

  • First, help the client recognize and value the distinctive ways he or she is smart. This may include talents that are typically ignored in business. For example, the technology director above may have peers with more activated Verbal intelligence, which is highly prized in our culture. Yet his combination of Visual-Spatial competence and Interpersonal skill may enable him to enter the conversation with a diagram that incorporates diverse views on the issue, enabling the group to see a shared solution.
  • Second, work with the client to diagnose the situation. What result is needed? In what alternative ways may that result be achieved? Standard Operating Procedure is often nothing more than the vestiges of other people’s ways of being smart.
  • Third, invite the client both to lead with strengths and to activate lesser-used intelligences. For example, in coaching clients on improving relationships, we often seek to activate their Intrapersonal and Interpersonal intelligences. For a client with highly-developed Logical smarts, consider also how to draw on deductive reasoning and creative problem-solving.
The Eight Intelligences
  1. Bodily-Kinesthetic: Using your body with comfort and skill
  2. Interpersonal: Understanding and connecting with others
  3. Intrapersonal: Understanding yourself and managing your thoughts and emotions
  4. Logical-Mathematical:Reasoning using math or logic
  5. Musical-Rhythmic: Making music or making sense of tone and rhythm
  6. Naturalist: Identifying things and understanding processes in your environment
  7. Verbal-Linguistic: Reading, writing, speaking, and listening
  8. Visual-Spatial: Conceiving and mentally manipulating visual images

Source: Howard Gardner, descriptions by Dario Nardi and Pam Fox Rollin

Current coach training and practice draw intensively on Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Verbal-Linguistic intelligences. We learn to be aware of and manage our own thoughts and emotions, to understand how people view their world, to relate with an open heart, to listen more fully and talk more clearly. Progressive practice increasingly incorporates Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence through somatic awareness and movement. Some coaching methods activate Visual-Spatial intelligence through imagery, Logical-Mathematical intelligence through well-reasoned distinctions, even Naturalist and Musical-Rhythmic intelligences through guided experiences.

How are we bringing these intelligences to our clients? For example, when we request fieldwork, do the methodologies reflect our own intelligence profile or the gifts and development goals of the client?

Finally, Multiple Intelligences may invite an even higher standard of practice as we define our community and develop the next generation of coaches and thought-leaders. The MI model is so clearly consistent with coaching values of self-discovery and honoring others. What if we deeply respected coaching approaches that draw on varied intelligences, including our own least-developed? Who might we welcome into our community? What voices might we hear more fully? And, how might this help us serve clients?

*This article was previously published in Choice Magazine (v.2, isue 1, p.35)