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Hunch, instinct, deeper knowing. There are many names for gut feelings or the ability to immediately understand something without conscious reasoning. In other words, answers and solutions come to you, but you may not be aware of exactly why or how.
In the age of big data, trusting your gut often gets a bad rap. Intuition — the term used to refer to gut feelings in research — is frequently dismissed as mystical or unreliable. While it’s true that intuition can be fallible, studies show that pairing gut feelings with analytical thinking helps you make better, faster, and more accurate decisions and gives you more confidence in your choices than relying on intellect alone. This is especially true when you’re overthinking or when there is no single clear-cut, “correct” option.
In fact, surveys of top executives show that a majority of leaders leverage feelings and experience when handling crises. Even the U.S. Navy has invested millions of dollars into helping sailors and Marines refine their sixth sense, precisely because intuition can supersede intellect in high-stakes situations like the battlefield.
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The Science Behind Your Gut Feelings
Despite popular belief, there’s a deep neurological basis for intuition. Scientists call the stomach the “second brain” for a reason. There’s a vast neural network of 100 million neurons lining your entire digestive tract. That’s more neurons than are found in the spinal cord, which points to the gut’s incredible processing abilities.
When you approach a decision intuitively, your brain works in tandem with your gut to quickly assess all your memories, past learnings, personal needs, and preferences and then makes the wisest decision given the context. In this way, intuition is a form of emotional and experiential data that leaders need to value.
Even if you’re not consciously using your intuition, you still probably experience benefits from it every day. Everyone knows what it feels like to have a pit in your stomach as you weigh a decision. That’s the gut talking loud and clear. If you’re a manager, for example, getting a “read” on your direct reports allows you to sense when they’re demotivated and to take steps to re-engage them. Similarly, doing a “gut check” on a product design can steer your creative process in the right direction.
How to Leverage Your Intuition in Decision-Making
Leaders who identify as highly sensitive have stronger gut feelings than most, but have also been discouraged from using this sensory data. The trait of high sensitivity contributes to perceiving, processing, and synthesizing information more deeply, including data about others’ emotional worlds. This means your intuition is more highly developed than most other people because you’re constantly adding new data to your bank of knowledge about the world and yourself. The only problem is that you’ve probably been taught to devalue this strength in yourself.
The good news is that intuition is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with intentional practice. Here are a few ways to begin leveraging your intuition as a helpful decision-making tool in your career.
Discern gut feeling from fear.
Fear tends to be accompanied by bodily sensations of constricting or minimizing. You may feel tense, panicky, or desperate. Fear has a pushing energy, as if you’re trying to force something, or selecting an option because you want to avoid a threat, rejection, or punishment. Fear also tends to be dominated by self-critical thoughts that urges you to hide, conform, or compromise yourself.
Intuition on the other hand has pulling energy, as if your choice is moving you toward your best interest, even if that means pursuing a risk or moving more slowly than others. This is usually accompanied by feelings of excitement and anticipation or ease and contentment. Physically, gut feelings tend to cause your body to relax. With intuition, your inner voice is more grounded and wise, like a good mentor.
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Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.