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Intention and Intentionality – The Coaching Room

This article was originally written by Michael Hall – gently edited by The Coaching Room


At the heart of Neuro-Semantics we train and coach intentionality. That’s what the Intention Pattern in APG is all about. That’s also why we ask a series of meta-questions about a person’s “reason why” he or she does or wants what the person wants. Via this process, we enable a person to access a power within that can set a direction for life and control of one’s attentions.

Then from a highly energised intentional stance, a person can develop a laser-beam focus for her flow or “genius” state.

Yet intention and intentionality are not the same. They differ and they actually differ significantly. For years I confused the two to such an extent at times that I even identified them as the same thing. Yet they are not. What about you? Can you clearly articulate the difference between them? To fully understand this, let’s back up to the idea of wish, then we will go to will, and after that to intention.

The following is an attempt to trace the conceptual understanding of intentionality from wish to will to intention and finally onto intentionality. I have taken this primarily from Rollo May’s development of it in his classic work, Love and Will (1969). If the process seems deep or thick, just keep reading. Later, when you get the full picture, reread this article to pick up the more refined aspects of these distinctions. The distinctions here are specially important if you are a coach or a trainer and lead to some incredibly powerful states and experiences as you will discover.


Wish —> Want

The first question in Coaching is, What do you want? Some people don’t know what they want. They have not developed a “want.” They are not at that stage yet. So we have to begin with something that’s prior to a want, yet something which indicates that their will is engaged. Start with what interests them—their wishes. “What do you wish for?” In a chapter on “Wish and Will” (Chapter 8, Love and Will) Rollo May noted that wish comes first and that within wish is an element of meaning in it. What do you wish for? With the development of consciousness, wishes arise. A wish is not merely a push from behind or a need calling for satisfaction. Because a wish has some selectivity in it, it begins to orient you to the future.

“I am saying that there is no will without a prior wish. The wish, like all symbolic processes, has a progressive element, a reaching ahead, as well as a regressive pole, a propulsion from behind. The wish thus carries its meaning as well as its force. Its motive power lies in the conjunction of this meaning and force. We can now understand why William Lynch should hold that ‘to wish is the most human act.’” (Love and Will, p. 209)


“Will is the capacity to organise one’s self so that movement in a certain direction or toward a certain goal may take place. Wish is the imaginative playing with the possibility of some act or state occurring. … Will requires self-consciousness; ‘wish’ does not. ‘Will’ implies some possibility of either/or choice; ‘wish’ does not. ‘Wish’ gives the warmth, the content, the imagination, the child’s play, the freshness, and the richness to ‘will.’ ‘Will’ gives the self- direction, the maturity, to ‘wish.’ ‘Will’ protects ‘wish,’ permits it to continue without running risks which are too great. But without ‘wish,’ ‘will’ loses its life-blood, its vitality, and tends to expire in self-contradiction.” 

“Will enters the picture not as a denial of wish, but as an incorporation of wish on a higher level of consciousness.”

We start first with wishes, although even here many people cannot go. They suffer from a denial of wishes or a rationalisation of wishes. For them wishing is unrealistic and sets them up for disillusionment. So they refuse it. If you have a client like that, then explore, “Do you allow yourself to wish? To dream? To wildly imagine possibilities?”


It is the childlike ability to wish that we build up will, from there we build up intention and from there, decision and focus. So it is at that point that Rollo May says that William James identified “the central problem of will, namely, attention.” Then noting that this was a stroke of genius, he then quoted William James:

“When we analyse will with all the tools modern psychoanalysis brings us, we shall find ourselves pushed back to the level of attention or intention as the seat of will. The effort which goes into the exercise of will is really effort of attention; the strain in willing is the effort to keep the consciousness clear, i.e., the strain of keeping the attention focused.”

For years I have been quoting and crediting this to Rollo May. Obviously I have been wrong. Apparently somewhere along the line I must have forgotten that Rollo May was quoting William James. Then one day in Guangzhou China during my early morning reading, I was re-reading Love and Will and discovered. Then to make his point, Rollo May quoted one of James’ most earthy illustrative stories about will.


“We know what it is to get out of bed on a freezing morning in a room without a fire, and how the very vital principle within us protests against the ordeal. [The scene is New England before the advent of central heating.] Probably most persons have lain on certain mornings for an hour at a time unable to brace themselves to the resolve. We think how late we shall be, how the duties of the day will suffer; we say, ‘I must get up, this is ignominious,’ and so on. But still the warm couch feels too delicious, and the cold outside too cruel, and resolution faints away and postpones itself again and again just as it seemed on the verge of the decisive act.

Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances? If I may generalise from my own experience, we more often than not get up without any struggle or decision at all. We suddenly find that we have got up. A fortunate lapse of consciousness occurs; we forget both the warmth and the cold; we fall into some revery connected with the day’s life, in the course of which the idea flashes across us, ‘Hollo! I must lie here no longer’ —an idea which at that lucky instant awakens no contradictory or paralysing suggestions, and consequently produces immediately its appropriate motor effects. It was our acute consciousness of both the warmth and the cold during the period of struggle which paralysed our activity…”


In analysing this, Rollo May says William James jumped over the whole problem of will with his statement about the “fortunate lapse of consciousness” which enabled him to get out of bed and begin the activities of the day. So he asked, “What went on in that ‘fortunate lapse of consciousness?’” He says that if our decision is based on “luck” or “happenstance” then our house is built upon the sand. Then we have no basis for will at all. What happened in that revery? May suggestion—in that moment the phenomenon of intentionality occurred.

Lying in bed and engaged in the revery of the day’s activities you mobilise your attentions and wishes so that you begin to imagine doing and experiencing those activities. Then without awareness of the change of your state, you suddenly find yourself up and moving and getting yourself ready. Here wishes and imaginations as emotional representations evoke a sense of experiencing. You are now intending—literally turning yourself toward your vision and images. You are intending an object.



When we go to an English dictionary, Webster says that the first meaning for intention is from the verb intend which means “to mean or to signify.” “I intend to do something.” It secondarily carries the meaning of purpose or design. Within “intention” is the root word tend which refers to “movement toward something, tend toward, tendency.” Here is a turning toward something.

Rollo May says that the more significant aspect of intention is its relation to meaning. When we ask, “What is the intent of the law?” we are asking about its meaning. He then added, “Meaning is an intention of the mind. Meaning has no meaning apart from intention.” So we can think that with each act of consciousness we are tending toward something, we are turning toward something. So intention has within it, no matter how latent, some turning/ tendency/ movement toward a direction.


This fits another definition from the dictionary and the primary way the term is used in Phenomenology. Intent is the “turning of the mind toward an object.” Edmund Husserl, father of modern Phenomenology, extended the concept of intention to the whole of our knowledge by emphasising that consciousness is always consciousness of something. “Meaning is an intention of the mind.”

The person who first distinguished intention from intentionality was Husserl. He learned intentionality from Franz Brentano who believed that consciousness itself is defined by the fact that it intends something, that it points toward something outside itself, “it intends an object.” The intention is the turning toward something with one’s consciousness (mind) and intentionality is what lies behind the intention and gives meaningful contents to consciousness.



That’s intention—tending toward something. From intention, Rollo May then defined intentionality as “the structure which gives meaning to experience.” Don’t confuse this with “intentions.” Intentionality is higher. It is the dimension which out-frames the intentions, it is the background framework. Intentionality describes the higher-level capacity which you have which enables you to create the context for intentions. Intentionality provides you a way to imaginatively participate in calling out your possibilities. This capacity comes out of your awareness by which you can form, mold, and change yourself and the future in relation to each other.

Intentionality lies at the heart of consciousness itself. At a preliminary stage of intentionality, intentions determine how you perceive the world. After all, the intention you bring to something governs how you will perceive it. Because when you have an intention you are “turning your attention toward something,” your perception is directed by your intentionality— your capacity for intention.


Suppose you are going to see a house in the mountains. If your intention is to look for a place to rent for the summer months, you will view it to see if it is well built, gets enough sun, will work for your vacation time. If your intention is that of a real-estate investor, you will view it in terms of what needs to be fixed, how it can be priced attractively higher than the cost so you can make a profit.  If you are visiting a friend, you will view it with the eyes of seeing it in terms of friendship and hospitality – open patio, easy chairs for afternoon talk.

When you cannot see an obvious thing, there is probably nothing wrong with your eyes or even your mind. You cannot see it because the intentionality in which you are trapped makes it impossible for you to see it. This is why, when you are learning NLP structures, you often cannot see the processes due to the story that you get caught up in. Until your intentionality changes, your perceptions will be stuck. Yet change your intentionality and a whole new vista of possibilities will open up.


Intention and Intentionality

If intentionality is used as a means for knowing reality, as an epistemology, then to intend an object, to turn your mind to it, is to know that object regarding its meaning (significance). Of course, by the meaning you bring to it. You know it in terms of the intentional concepts that you bring to the object. Your “knowledge” is informed by your intentions.

Thomas Aquinas said that intentionality is what “the intellect grasps about the thing understood.” Yet what your intellect grasps is also what your intellect seeks to find. It is not clean or objective—it cannot be. “What are you looking for? “What are you expecting?”


Intentionality as your capacity to set intentions is also your personal epistemology— your way of knowing your reality—knowing its objects and its meanings. From there you set intentions so you can then carry that the meaning of reality as you have come know it.            In this, the objects of your intention conform to your way of understanding (intentionality). It fits! It always fits and that can be the problem. Here we see your mind as an active forming and creative participant in what you come to know.

Intentions can be conscious or unconscious. Psychoanalysis has demonstrated that we never have a purely conscious intention, but also unconscious intentions.

Intention is a psychological state. With an intention, you can get yourself to voluntarily do this or that. Your intentions formulate your purpose and agenda. Why are you doing this or that? Your purpose is what you get out of doing something.


Intentionality is a being-state rather than a psychological state. It is the framework for both conscious and unconscious intentions. It is the meaning frame from which intentions arise. It is a state of being, that is, it is the totality of your orientation to the world at a given time. Intentionality occurs in the back of the mind, as a level above your immediate awareness and is often outside conscious awareness. As a form of epistemology, intentionality establishes your response-style, which is not purpose per se. However, it is the basis which makes your purposes possible.

You participate in forming the future by your capacity to respond to new possibilities and to make them actual. You do that by tending toward them and intending them— this activates your neurological energies—wishes, imaginations, emotions.

“Intentionality in human experience, is what underlies will and decision. It is not only prior to will and decision, but makes them possible.” 


Intentionality and the Human Powers

Intentionality then refers to your capacity to stretch forward which, in turn, creates tendency and even tension. As an this inner matrix of your meaning-making powers intentionality mobilises many other critically important experiences, namely, vitality, courage, care, potentiality, identity, anxiety, and motivation. All of these are also derived from intentionality.

First, vitality. “Man’s vitality is as great as his intentionality; they are interdependent. … Vitality is the power of creating beyond oneself without losing oneself.” 

Second, care. The root word “tend” which literally means “to take care of” establishes the close relationship between caring and intentionality. When you care about something or someone, then life matters! Heidegger, another Phenomenologist, says care is the source of will. If I care about being, I will shepherd it with attention to its welfare.

“Care is a particular type of intentionality … ‘intentionality’ and ‘care’ lies in the literal term ‘tend,’ which is both the root of intentionality and the meaning of care. Tend means a tendency, in inclination, a throwing of one’s weight on a given side…” 


Third, courage. “The degree of one’s intentionality can be seen by the degree of one’s courage.” Courage also arises from intentionality and, in fact, the stronger your intentionality, the more robust your courage to pursue your highest values and visions. Need more courage? Try more intentionality.

Fourth, potentials. The degree of intentionality defines your aliveness and the potential of your commitment to a cause, that is, your capacity to respond. The Latin stem is intendeze which literally means “to stretch.” From this we get our word “tension.” Intention then is a “stretching” toward something.

“Imagine is the house of intentionality and fantasy one of its languages. … fantasy in its original meaning of … ‘able to represent,’ ‘to make visible.’ Fantasy is the language of the total self, communicating, offering itself, trying on for size.” 


Fifth, identity. In intentionality you experience your identity. “I” is the “I” of “I can…” “I will…” “I choose…” You experience your identity in the action, or the possibility of making something actual that you intend. Consequently, to experience more of your identity and your sense of self in a more robust and grounded way, use more of your intentionality. Not only does it develop your courage, but also your very self.

Sixth, Anxiety. Kierkegaard says that the intermediate variable between potentiality and actuality is anxiety. Anxiety creates energy within you to act, to move, and to respond. It may have the feel of fear, but it lacks an object that it may be afraid of. It may have the feel of excitement, yet again, without a specific object for the excitement.

“Normal, constructive anxiety goes with becoming aware of and assuming one’s potentialities. Intentionality is the constructive use of normal anxiety. If I can have some expectations and possibilities of acting on my powers, I move ahead. But if the anxiety becomes overwhelming, then the possibilities for action are blotted out.” 

Seven, Motivation. Intentionality is also related to the intensity of an experience, that is, to how you experience aliveness in the experience. We call this aliveness or vitality— motivation.

“The degree of intentionality can define the aliveness of the person, the potential degree of commitment, and his capacity…”


Coaching the Clarification of Intentionality

Rollo May, as a Psychologist and Psychotherapist, says that in therapy the real battlefield lies “in clarifying the intentionality of the patient. … it shifts the struggle to one between authentic fulfillment and non-fulfillment. … my task is to be conscious of what the intentionality of the patient is in the particular session.”

Now isn’t that also true in Coaching? Yes! When you coach, you are facilitating the authentic fulfilment of a client by tapping into his or her deepest and highest intentionality. So you ask the series of meta-questions about intentions. This activates the person’s intentionality.


“What is your highest intention? Is it healthy? Are you fulfilling your best intentions? Is this your life’s centre? If you don’t know what you want, what do you think you want?

What would you like to want? Why did you come here today? Above and beyond your goals and objectives, what do you care about?”

Your consciousness is a consciousness about what you perceive and what you want. In this your meanings and your intentionality are complementary aspects of your “will to meaning.” And that is one thing that makes you uniquely human. So start with your wishes and let them become what you will and then empower them with the power of your intentionality as your daily intentions set the direction of your life.


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