Four Steps to Better Decision-Making
After my post on how to make fear an ally, several of you asked: “How do you distinguish fear from gut instinct or intuition?” In other words, how can you make a good decision when you’re not sure if the signals you’re getting mean go for it (even if it’s stepping into unknown territory and therefore a little scary) or if those signals are telling you to steer clear?
This is a great question, and one that we all struggle with from time to time.
Research shows us that, whether we’re aware of it or not, our emotions drive most of the decisions we make. So even when we’ve done our pro and con list and researched our options to make a rational decision, our emotional intelligence drives our choices. It is designed to inform our final actions. But it takes practice to use it more effectively.
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How Does Emotional Intelligence Work?
When we are faced with a decision, an emotion is triggered in our brain. Our nervous system responds by creating thoughts in our mind and feelings in our body (often referred to as a “gut feeling” although you could experience them elsewhere). So our decisions – even when we think we’re listening to our rational mind – are informed by our emotional responses. That is what emotions are designed to do: to quickly appraise a situation and inform our actions.
On top of this, recent findings in neuroscience show that our brains are not the only areas where we have neural networks. We also have complex and fully functional neural networks in our heart and in our gut. These are called the cardiac and enteric nervous systems, respectively. The research shows that these neural networks display incredible levels of intelligence as well as memory. And all three of these “brains” are involved in our processing and behavior.
So as humans, we actually have three centers of intelligence or “brains” that we’re operating from, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Put simply: we have our head, or rational minds; we have our heart, or emotional center; and we have our gut, or the feelings in our physical body. In order to make better decisions, it’s important to check that all three – our head, our heart and our gut – are in alignment. Think of it as working with your whole toolkit and not relying on just one tool in your toolbox.
When and Why We Make Poor Decisions
How does one go about doing a three-point check? And when does it make sense to do so? In other words, when and how do you best use your own holistic intelligence when making decisions?
It may seem like the more efficient approach is to try to push away or ignore an emotion that’s coming up. After all, most of us are not taught to work with all three centers of intelligence – and it’s not straightforward without practice. Many of us have been taught that we need to manage or control our emotions. So we override some of our own innate guidance systems, relying overly on the brain and too often ignoring the intelligence centers of our heart and our gut. And this limits our decision-making ability.
Yet we aren’t taught how to leverage these other centers, even though we’ve all heard the saying “trust your gut instinct” or “listen to your heart.” And the benefits of emotional intelligence in the work environment are well-documented: from improved relationships to better leadership to more successful outcomes.
Meditation and mindfulness training is one proven way to strengthen your emotional intelligence domains, which include areas like self-awareness, social skills, empathy, self-regulation and motivation.
Emotions are not necessarily seen as something which we can capitalize on to be more effective decision-makers, leaders, partners, people. So most of us aren’t as skilled at making great decisions as we could be… at least in part because we aren’t trained to leverage our emotions, much less the incredible intelligence available to us when we engage our heads, hearts and guts.
The Cost Of Ignoring Our Own Innate Guidance
It can be costly to ignore this inner guidance system. Once I was in a series of meetings with a potential new customer and I kept getting feelings of anxiety as we were negotiating the contract. Something told me to hold off on the agreement but I couldn’t reason it out. I liked the leadership team, they seemed to have integrity and a solid work ethic. The company had an excellent reputation. And the project, an 18-month undertaking that would have me doing change management for teams spread across 3 states, was a solid fit for my background and experience. If anything, I felt a bit overqualified for the project and knew they’d receive a great deal of value.
I was very busy at the time and didn’t have as much practice as I do now in working with the three centers of intelligence – much less trusting that guidance. So I didn’t explore that anxious feeling as much as I would today.
I assessed the opportunity and determined that (rationally) everything lined up and was a go. I even got information from other colleagues who’d done business with the firm and found their teams and leadership great to work with. So I dismissed the unsettled feeling, deciding that maybe it was a mannerism from one of their leaders that was slightly off-putting, no reason not to pursue the business.
In the end, it turned out that the company, a privately-held firm in business for decades, had gotten into severe financial problems. They filed for bankruptcy within the next year, leaving many of their contractors without payment and leaving me with a big loss for unpaid services that year. Had I truly listened to my own guidance, I would have explored that anxious feeling further and – perhaps – made a different choice.
Four Steps to Make Better Decisions
The reality is that we have an incredibly powerful system at our disposal for making decisions. Learning to use and to trust our innate guidance system – our emotional intelligence, the wisdom of the physical body and the power of our minds – can give us an advantage in making better decisions. But it takes practice to learn to use it well.
Here are four steps to begin to engage your full toolkit to make better decisions:
- Notice your initial instinct. Pay attention when you have a big decision to make and something feels off. This is likely your system informing you to further evaluate a situation. If you feel pressure to give an immediate response, ask for more time. Taking just a fraction of a second more to make a decision could help improve your decision-making accuracy according to one study. So ask for another hour, another day, for time to sleep on it, for a chance to discuss with your partner or team or spouse, whatever feels like it’ll give you the chance to explore this further in order to make your best decision.
- Ask from a more neutral state. Ask yourself what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, and where in your body are you feeling it? It may be an unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach or even a general feeling of contraction, where you are closed off to the idea for some reason. Cultivate your emotional intelligence by practicing the ability to identify and manage your own emotions – and to be aware of those of others around you. This practice alone can help you prevent emotions from influencing unrelated decisions. For example, you’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour, you’re running late and you feel flustered as you rush into a client meeting. You don’t want to bring those feelings of frustration and feeling off-center into the unrelated decisions you’ll be making during the client meeting. Try to find a more neutral state where you’re not bringing anxiety about traffic into an important, unrelated business decision. It can help to consider the situation as if you are a third-party, unbiased observer. This is a skill that takes practice.
- Explore your options. Now that you’re more aware of what you’re feeling or sensing about a specific decision, explore it further. Try to better understand what your guidance is telling you… is a feeling of hesitation simply an indication that you need more information? It may not mean your answer is no. Talk it through with a trusted colleague, coach or mentor. Let’s take the contract negotiation above as an example. You might ask:
>> Does the other person or team remind you of someone in your past that took advantage of you?
>> Is this person now doing the same thing or is it just a similar mannerism that triggered your response?
>> Is your anxious response a reaction to the other person or to yourself (such as your own fear of success or failure)?
>> Are your emotions telling you to protect yourself in some way (with an unsettling, disgusted, anxious or even angry emotional response)? >> What is the perspective of others involved? Are there compromises that are more aligned?
- Give it a red, yellow or green light. Now that you’ve explored your options, gathered more information and evaluated things from a more neutral state, what is your sense: Is it a definite green light: a yes, move ahead? Perhaps it’s more of a yellow, you need to hold off until you have more information, different options or the timing is better. Or it’s a red, you’ve clearly decided that the answer is not to move ahead, at least not in the direction you’d considered.
Once you’ve explored what you’re thinking, feeling and sensing, revisit your decision and make a choice. If it’s a big decision, you may choose to sit with it for a few hours or a day before you share it with anyone else. Continue to observe how you’re feeling.
At the same time, be aware if you have a tendency to ruminate for too long, putting off important decisions until they are made for you by circumstances or someone else. You’re going to gain more clarity from engagement, not thought. Overthinking rarely leads to greater clarity. So even taking a small step in one direction can give you insights you won’t otherwise have… and you can almost always change or reverse course.
Each of us has a natural knowing, an intelligence that goes beyond our mind and literally lives in our hearts and our bodies. When you consider moving forward, do you feel expansive? Does your chest open up, do you feel excited, do you sense an expansion – even if there’s a little fear or anxiety in there, too?
Alternately, if you’re feeling contracted, your gut or intuition is sending you a signal. It may be telling you to stay away from something or that you need to make an adjustment to bring a situation or option into better alignment. Pay attention to this.
This takes practice. There are a variety of techniques that help you communicate with your three centers of intelligence so that you can make your best choices more often. The steps above are a great start. Over time, you’ll find it easier to connect with your own innate guidance system to make better decisions more quickly and consistently.
How do you make your best decisions? Do you go with your gut instinct? Do you let your heart lead you? Or do you rely on rational, fact-based choices from your head?
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