Contextual Intelligence (CI): The Key to Successful Consulting

A Model for Developing Contextual Intelligence (CI)*

Successful consultation involves more than knowledge of techniques and technical skills. It requires understanding the context in which one operates – knowing what works with which persons in what situations. It is more than “knowing what” to do; it is “knowing how” to get it done.

Institutional researchers (Terenzini, 1993) and contemporary intelligence theorists (Davidson & Downing, 2000; Sternberg, 1985, 1997; Wagner, 2000) have referred to this skill as “Contextual Intelligence.” Contextual intelligence (CI) is typically associated with “practical know-how that rarely is formally described or taught directly” (Wagner, 1987). It is the skill that is most closely associated with wisdom and practical knowledge, and has shown to be the best predictor of success in real-life performance situations (Sternberg, 2000). In recent interviews of 22 expert performance consultants (Hays & Brown, in press), factors related to CI were consistently identified as crucial to consulting success.


This paper explores the nature of Contextual Intelligence, and its relevance in performance consultation. It begins with a brief overview of the concept of Contextual Intelligence and the relevance of CI for sport/performance psychologists. The challenge of developing CI is then considered. Specific frameworks, suggestions and examples for nurturing CI will be offered. Please note that throughout this paper the term “performance psychology” is used as the generic term for enhancing performance, including but not limited to the performing arts, business, medicine, high risk occupations, and of course athletics.

Sternberg’s Triarchic Model

While several theorists have proposed that intelligence is composed of several factors other than verbal and performance abilities (Gardner, 1983; Brody, 2000; Davidson & Downing, 2000) it was Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg (1985) that seems to have first popularized the term “contextual intelligence” as part of his Triarchic Model of intelligence. Sternberg proposes that intelligence is composed of three aspects: analytical intelligence, creative intelligence and contextual intelligence.

Analytical intelligence refers to internal abilities such as reasoning, processing of information, and analyzing. These are the skills that most closely resemble the traditional concept of “general intelligence.” Creative intelligence involves experiential skills as one encounters new and novel situations. This reflects the ability of an individual to combine seemingly unrelated facts to form new ideas, and is typically not measured by traditional intelligence tests.

Contextual intelligence is the practical application of knowledge and information to real-world situations. This is an external, interactive process that involves both adapting to and modifying an environment to accomplish a desired goal; as well as recognizing when adaptation is not a viable option. This is the ability that is most closely associated with wisdom and practical knowledge. It is the best predictor of success in real-life performance situations.

As an example of contextual intelligence, Sternberg describes a situation in which an employee loved his work, co-workers and where he lived; but hated his boss. The employee was contacted by a “head-hunter” who had heard of his discontent and offered a position with considerably more pay and responsibility at an up-and-coming company in a nearby city. The Contextually intelligent employee declined the position and instead gave the headhunter the name of his boss, who wound up taking the new job.

Terenzini’s Institutional Research Model

The term “Contextual Intelligence” has also been used by Terenzini’s (1993), a psychologist specializing in the study of educational institutions. Terenzini proposes that there are three tiers of skills that are necessary for effective institutional research. These skills are established in a developmental fashion with each tier serving as a foundation for the subsequent level. These tiers are: technical knowledge, issues intelligence and contextual intelligence. While Terenzini’s model was originally designed for consulting with educational institutions, it is promising as a model applicable to performance consulting

At the technical level, one needs factual knowledge and information. This tier requires being grounded in theory and technique, and mastering a host of technical skills. This has historically been the primary focus of applied sport psychology training. It would include the various techniques of psychological skills training, motivational theory and techniques, as well as the basic biomechanics of performance. These skills are “fundamental and foundational. Without the higher-level forms of intelligence, however, it has little utility or value (Terenzini, 1993, p.4).”

The second tier, issues intelligence, is knowledge of the problems and issues that the organization (or performer) confronts. These are the practical areas to which the techniques and methods of Tier 1 are applied. For the performance consultant, this tier includes knowledge of common issues such as performance anxiety, burnout, the complex pressures of being an elite performer, as well as knowledge of general organization issues such as team dynamics, cohesion and leadership. It requires a general knowledge of how the business of sport and/or performance operates. Sport psychology training programs have demonstrated growing attention and interest to these areas. The strongest focus has been on current issues of elite performers, team dynamics, and player coach dynamics. This organization knowledge is general and “portable” across various settings. Again these are important skills; but not sufficient for effective consultation.

Contextual intelligence is the third tier. It involves not only knowing the culture of the performance domain in general, but also knowing the culture and context of the specific setting in which the performer operates. It is an understanding of the historical and philosophical evolution of the performance context, as well as the formal and informal political structure – the decision-making processes and customs in this particular school, business, team or troupe. It requires an understanding of values and attitudes of the people at all levels of the organization, from the tops of the governing bodies all the way to the equipment manager. It is this crowning form of intelligence that “makes possible the prudent, intelligent, and illuminating application of technical and methodological intelligence to locally meaningful versions of general issues (Terenzini, 1993, p.6).” It is the foundation by which consultants earn legitimacy, trust and respect.

Contextual Intelligence and Computers

In recent years, the term “Contextual Intelligence” has been applied to a new breed of computer programs striving towards artificial intelligence – the ability to think and reason beyond the initial information provided (fallow, 2000). Optical Character Recognition (OCR) programs are some of the more primitive examples of such programs. These programs take the input that one is providing, analyzes the context in which the information occurs, and then shapes its interaction based upon those associations. With OCR software, this involves the analysis of patterns of an optical scanner, and proposing letters or numbers based upon the context of other adjacent optical patterns. For more complex software programs, it may involve looking at one’s choice of words and themes in answering a series of interactive questions, and then altering and shaping both the questions generated and solutions suggested, based upon this ongoing analysis. Questions are phrased to reflect the language and concepts entered by the user. Suggestions and questions are generated through ongoing analysis of the evolving interaction between the user and computer; a process not so different from effective consultation.

CI and Sport/Performance Psychology

While the term “Contextual Intelligence” may be relatively unfamiliar to many in the sport/performance arena, successful consultants are vitally aware of the general concept. As mentioned earlier, in recent interviews of 22 expert performance consultants (Hays & Brown, in press), factors related to CI were consistently identified as crucial to consulting success. The importance of contextual issues has been noted in various formats: the challenges of gaining entry to teams and athletes (Ravizza, 1988), the impact of the families on athletic performance (Hellstedt, 1995; Cote, 1999), the impact of National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) on perceived stress and subsequent performance of elite athletes (Woodman & hardy, 1998; Gould et al., 1999).

Sport/performance psychology training has historically focused on individual or team skills and techniques. This is our strength as we are well grounded in the tools and techniques of enhancing performance. According to Terenzini’s model, we have done well developing the first tier of expertise.

Terenzini’s second tier of expertise involves “Issues Intelligence.” For the performance psychologist this would involve generic concerns such as performance anxiety, work/life balance, pressures within the specific performance domain such as longevity of career in professional athletes, the pressures of auditioning for performing artists and the financial volatility of the marketplace of business performers. As performance consultants branch out into new domains, we have shown we are well trained to identify the pressures and issues the performer faces.

While the field has been admirable in (a) developing individual techniques and tools, and (b) identifying common issues, there are few, if any, models for actually navigating the vicissitudes of the context in which performance occurs.

Can CI be taught?

Contextual Intelligence is frequently thought of as a “tacit ability” which one acquires indirectly. It is described as “practical know-how that rarely is formally described or taught directly” (Wagner, 2000, p. 383). The arguments against being able to teach CI are similar to those encountered by early sport psychologists proposing to improve mental abilities to enhance performance. Three of the most common myths confronted by sport psychologists were that (a) a person is either born with mental skills or not; (b) mental skills cannot be taught; and (c) developing mental skills is a natural byproduct of practice. Sport psychologists have documented that attending to the specific mental processes associated with best practices and by combining those practices with what has been learned in the research labs, mental skills can be developed and performance enhanced.

In recent years the concept of Emotional Intelligence has gained recognition as a critical factor in real world success. Daniel Goleman (1994), author of the best selling book Emotional Intelligence, considers Sternberg’s contextual intelligence,” as an aspect of emotional intelligence. He also proposes that Emotional Intelligence can be nurtured and developed by (a) recognizing and identifying key elements (i.e., emotions); (b) monitoring one’s on reactions and behaviors (slowing impulsiveness; “soothing” oneself); and (c) developing specific skill sets (observe prior to acting; over-learning certain responses).

Few people operate at the peak of their abilities, whether it is athletic potential, intellectual potential, or making use of contextual intelligence. Just as has been demonstrated with mental skills training, by directly addressing the processes associated with “best practices” and integrating existing research and knowledge of context and contextual interventions, it is logical to assume that one can speed the “learning curve” for developing these skills

Systems Theory and CI

Systems theory (Bateson, 1972; Brown & McDaniel, 1995; Wynne, McDaniel & Weber, 1986) offers concepts, constructs and a mental map for developing the skills associated with contextual intelligence. The systems model is unique in its “attention to organization, to the relationship between parts, to the concentration on patterned rather than linear relationship, to a consideration of events in the context in which they are occurring rather than an isolation of events from their environmental context” (Steinglass, 1978, p. 304). In addition to providing constructs and language for addressing contextual issues, there is a rich body of knowledge guiding interventions within a contextual framework.

Guiding Principle

If an intervention is to be successful, it must (a) be in that person’s language; and (b) fit that person’s view of reality (Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, 1974). This fundamental guideline was proposed by systems theorists almost 30 years ago and remains a litmus test of successful contextual intervention. These two factors were emphasized consistently in recent interviews with expert performance consultants (Hays and Brown, in press).

Developing one’s Contextual Intelligence is much like preparing to venture into a new, foreign country. You may be very bright and know a multitude of skills and techniques; but if you do not know the language or the customs of that country, you have little chance of successful consulting.

The remainder of this article addresses specific methods for learning the language of a performance culture and for understanding a person’s reality within a cultural context.

Learning the Language

The consultant with prior experience in the performing culture and is subsequently fluent in the culture’s language has a distinct advantage. A person who has lived and worked with French speaking people has an easier time becoming a consultant in France. A person who has experience in the performance domain and knows the language will be better equipped to consult within that domain. For example, if you are consulting with a triathlete, you want to know what is meant by “T1” and “T2;” if you are consulting with a corporate executive, you want to know what to expect if they have a “360 coming up.”

If a person does not have performance experience in a particular culture, experience can still be gained by visiting and immersing oneself in the culture. If you are consulting with a team, attend practices, travel with the team. If consulting with a business person, “shadow” that person at his or her office to get a first hand view of a typical day. If one wants to consult with surgeons, observe an operation to get a feel for the temperatures, sights and sounds of the OR.

Pay particular attention to the variations in language within a performance setting. In many cultures there are subtle differences between the language of the common laborer and the language of those of higher status. One may find similar differences within a single performance domain. Athletes speak a language of toil, sweat and effort; members of a National Governing Body (NGB) speak of sponsors, funding and public relations.

But how does one learn the language of a performance culture without first hand experience? The same way that one approaches learning a foreign language – through formal study and observation. Before entering a performance culture, do your homework. Read everything you can about that particular culture, giving special attention to constructs and concepts. If books have been written about the culture, start there. Read the current magazines and articles that performers within the culture read. If you have colleagues that have consulted in the specific performance domain, ask about their experiences.

Learning the language is ideal; yet there are still ways to function within a foreign culture even without mastering the language. My wife demonstrated this with remarkable success a few years ago on our first trip to France. It had been a chaotic year and she had not had the time to study the language in advance. She did take the time to learn a few phrases, one in particular that inevitably resulted in immediate acceptance, assistance and results. To my chagrin, she was often more effective than I was while struggling with my college French of 25 years past. If she was at a market and wanted something, she approached the person politely, smiled and said, “Pardon-moi, je suis Americaine imbecile” [Excuse me, I am an American idiot] and would offer her money in cupped hands before her. Inevitably the vendor would smile, and then kindheartedly nurture her though the selection of the best fruit, cheese or whatever treasure she had been seeking. In the process of doing so, there was an ongoing learning experience of the vendor teaching my wife the names of exotic fruits and cheeses, and my wife thoroughly engrossed as a student. Upon her return to the market a few days later, she would be greeted warmly as she navigated the process under the encouraging eyes of her previous day’s tutor.

There are several factors that seemed central to her success. First, she was polite, respectful and genuinely interested. Her taking time to learn a few simple phrases reflected interest rather than implying proficiency. Secondly, she openly acknowledged her limitations rather than attempting to “fake it.” And thirdly, she sought and welcomed assistance.

These same principles apply to a consultant in a new performance domain. Above all, be polite, respectful and have genuine interest. Acknowledge your limitations and ask others to help educate you. Acknowledging what you do not know does not diminish the expertise that you do possess. Above all, never attempt to “fake it.” The performers typically see through any such efforts and all credibility will be lost.

Learning the Reality – Developing Contextual Maps

If a consultant is to present information in a manner that is consistent with another’s view of reality, one must have a framework for organizing the elements of that reality. This is essentially creating a cognitive “map.” There is infinite information in a given situation that could be incorporated within a map, and maps can be quite different depending upon what one considers important and what one wants to accomplish (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). The value of a map is determined by its utility in making decisions. For a contextual map this typically involves (a) identifying critical contextual elements that influence successful intervention; (b) predicting potential resources and obstacles within the consulting context; and (c) providing a framework for comparisons across contextual settings.

For example, one could map the stars, the topography or the rainfall of a performance domain; but it would offer little assistance in predicting contextual interventions. If one is focusing upon an individual perspective, critical elements are likely to include factors such as those incorporated in Gould’s unified model of peak performance – fundamental characteristics, motivation, coping skills and facilitating skills (Hardy, Jones & Gould, 1996). If we are addressing the environment and contextual issues, I have found the “SPAM” Model particularly helpful in mapping contextual factors (Brown & McDaniels, 1995).

Granted, from a public relations perspective a SPAM Model may not have the most positive name recognition; but it is easy to remember. (I also found it appropriate for how I trained others in systemic intervention – parts of this and that, not particularly fancy, but providing basic nourishment to get the job done.) In addition to being “maps” spelled backwards, it is an acronym for critical elements of a contextual map – Structure, Patterns, Attitudes, and Means of Influence.


Successful consultants recognize the importance of knowing both the formal and informal structure of an organization. Who is designated with what areas of responsibility? Who is authorized to make what decisions; and who is informally recognized to make what decisions? Who are the leaders, who carry out which roles, and who are the followers?

There are also various characteristics of structure. Is it rigid or flexible? Is the sense of hierarchy rigidly locked in place and applicable to all situations, or is there a flexibility in structure where roles are liable to change in response to changing situations.

Understanding the structure of a context is critical for intervention, as reflected by the systems’ theory guideline of “always join through the hierarchy.” If one hopes to have long-lasting impact, it is important to “join” and enlist the support and endorsement of those at the top of the hierarchy on down. For example, if you are attempting to intervene with an athlete but the coach thinks your efforts are foolish and a waste of time, your impact will be minimal. If you have the coach’s support you are more likely to be successful with the athlete. If we widen the lens to include an even broader context, if you have the support of the coach but not that of the oversight organization (NGB), your efforts will probably be short-lived due to funding limitations.


Just as there is the structure of framework of a context, there is “the way the system works.” Identifying patterns involves looks at actions from a temporal perspective, with emphasis on timing and sequencing of events. How does information flow within the system? Who does what at which points in time when making decisions? Again, there are typically both formal and informal patterns to consider.

For example, many organizations have an informal process of reviewing ideas and proposed changes prior to the proposals being officially presented. There may be alliances or conflicts where a proposal is likely to be passed or vetoed based on simply who presents it, rather than the actual merits of the idea. The contextually intelligent consultant is aware of these patterns and processes, recognizing the flow of information and events as integral to the navigation of contextual waters, just as a kayaker does not attempt to change the course of a river, but to use his or her knowledge of the currents and eddies in channeling energy and efforts to reach one’s destination.


Attitudes reflect prevailing values, predispositions and prejudices. The contextually intelligent consultant weighs attitudes into his or her choice of recommendations, and incorporates the values into how those suggestions are made. There are team building exercises that would be successful with a theater or ballet group that would never work with a football team or military unit. One could present a rationale for relaxation training quite differently based upon the attitudes of the group. If the group values competition and winning, the rationale may draw from the martial arts and present relaxation as a tool to help focus on critical elements and improve reaction time. If the group values aesthetic expression, the rationale may reflect clearing one’s thought for greater access to the core of one’s being.

Knowing a person’s or group’s attitude is to know how to present information so that it is positively received. For example, many consultants believe that the principles of performance are universal across performance domains. Some argue that there is no need to spend extensive time gathering domain specific information, since the principles are universal. The CI-savvy consultant may believe that the principles are universal, but is still likely to treat each domain as unique because performers generally believe their domain is special. Even if little or no new information is anticipated, it is still important to go through the process, because a performer will be more receptive to feedback and suggestions if he or she feels as though the unique aspects of the situation have been fully appreciated and considered.

Means of Influence

The concept “means of influence” is often more helpful than the notion of power. Power is essentially a linear concept where means of influence incorporates the interactional aspects of relationships. A coach can pull a player or cut them from the team but does not actually have the power to make the person play better. A team owner may have the authority to fire a coach, give financial rewards and other efforts at influence, but does not have the absolute power to make the coach successful. (If that were the case, every team in the NFL would be undefeated).

A person at the bottom of an organization’s structure typically does not have much authority; but he or she still can have extremely effective means of influence. These may include a range of actions, such as complaining to the those in authority, expressing support for organizational superiors, asking for help, demonstrating a positive attitude with others, working to build up a skill deficit, or organizing a mutiny.

The consultant wants to ask, “What options are available for a person to influence others within the system?” and then to broaden and build upon the current options. For example, if a system is “stuck” and encountering problems, look at changing the means of influence. If the primary means of influence is intimidation, consider asking for help. If the primary method is criticism, consider broadening it to include praise. If the primary influence is money, consider giving recognition and responsibility.

“Means of influence” also involves not only knowing how influence or power works within a system, but also knowing what motivates individuals. This applies to how a consultant might influence individuals within the system, as well as how individuals within the system influence others. A player may be influenced by the promise of a starting position or by the likelihood of a national title. A business manager may be motivated by the concept of more profit, or the hope of better work-life balance.

The Broad Perspective

In applying the fundamental principles of operating in a person’s language and incorporating their view of reality, it is important to be able to “widen the lens,” step back and look at the broad picture. The CI consultant will recognize that the language and reality within a performance domain varies with one’s context or position within the performance domain. The language and reality of the athlete may involve trying to get a scholarship and juggle academic life. The college coach has to balance the personalities of the current team, developing talent for the future while recruiting for the next year’s class. The athletic director’s reality is filled with compliance regulations, fourteen teams that all want recognition and alumni that link contributions to winning records. It is all too easy to become locked in the perspective of only one part of the system and see others as “uncaring” or just “bad.” In my experience I’ve never known a person who intentionally sets out to make a bad decision. Each person, from the reality that he or she experiences, makes the best choices that they see available. The contextually intelligent individual widens the lens to appreciate the context or “reality” of each individual. Thinking of an individual as being “protective” rather than resistant can often facilitate shifting to this broader perspective. In doing so, it becomes easier to present suggestions reflecting their view of reality. Acknowledge and respect what a person wants to protect if you want their cooperation.


The concept of Contextual Intelligence adds an important dimension in identifying skills of successful consultation. Terenzini’s model of institutional research offers a structure for understanding the roles of various skills and abilities in becoming a successful consultant. Sport and performance psychology has excelled in the development of specific techniques and tools; Contextual Intelligence offers a framework for effectively applying this knowledge.

Rather than assuming that Contextual Intelligence is an unalterable tacit skill, we have offered a framework for developing one’s Contextual Intelligence just as one would attempt to improve mental skills. Increasing attention to contextual factors is the first step in this process. The existing knowledge base of systems theory offers guidelines for successful contextual interventions. Systems theory offers the basic principle that for any intervention to be successful, it must (a) be in the language of the recipient; and (b) be consistent with the recipient’s view of reality. Specific methods for learning the language of a performance domain have been suggested. The SPAM model is an easily remembered anonym for constructing a mental “map” of the various realities that are experienced within a performance domain. The performance consultant who is able to identify the Structure, Patterns, Attitudes and the Means of influence within a system is well on the way to consulting success.


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*Originally presented on November 2, 2002 at the 17th Annual Convention of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP), Tucson, AZ, USA.

© Copyright 2002 Charles Brown PhD.  All rights reserved.