Separate Fear From Intuition For Better Outcomes
After my last post on how to make fear an ally, several of you asked: “How do you distinguish fear from 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 a little scary and unknown) 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.
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 our best 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.
But when does it make sense to pay attention to your visceral response and the thoughts this creates? And how does one go about doing a head-heart-gut check? In other words, when and how often do you need to tune in to the holistic intelligence of your mind, heart and body?
It may seem like the more efficient approach is to try to push away or ignore an emotion that’s coming up. Many of us have been taught that we need to manage or control our emotions. 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 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
But 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. I couldn’t reason it out. I liked the people, the company had an excellent reputation, and the project seemed to be a clear fit for my background and experience.
I was also very busy at the time and 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 that anxious 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, 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 months of 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.
Three Steps to 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 whole 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 three steps to engage your whole toolkit to make better decisions:
- Notice. Pay attention when you have a big decision to make and something feels off. More than likely, this is your system informing you to further evaluate a situation. If you feel pressure to give an immediate response, ask for more time. Ask for another day, for time to sleep on it, for a chance to discuss with your partner or spouse, whatever feels appropriate to give yourself the chance to explore this feeling in order to make your best decision.
- Ask. 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.
- Explore. Now that you’ve tuned into what you’re feeling, explore it further. Try to understand what your guidance is telling you. 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)?
Once you’ve explored what you’re feeling, 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. 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 inner guidance 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?
If you enjoyed this post and would like help with learning to connect with your innate wisdom to make better decisions, contact me directly to see if you qualify for a complimentary strategy session.
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