Intuition: the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning; something one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.
Intuition is a strange and wonderful thing. It’s kind of mystical but as real as imagination. It’s the gut feeling we all have sometimes. It’s both primal and acquired. Whether it lives in the brain, heart or soul, its essence comes with us at birth, there to be developed.
I was primed to pay attention to my intuition by my dad when I was a kid. He taught me to sharpen and listen to it. He called it my “crap detector”. (Thinking back about it, I’m wondering if my mom knew he was calling it that? I know for sure we weren’t encouraged to say “crap”.)
He taught me to “hear”:
- “if it sounds too good to be true, it is”
- “if someone spends a great deal of energy explaining how right they are and why you should do something, they aren’t and you shouldn’t”
- “if your gut tells you whatever your gut is telling you, pay attention”.
My dad was not an overtly sensitive or emotional kind of guy, but he was wicked smart and he knew about people. A little cynical sometimes, but more often than not, his assessment was close to the bullseye. I loved the idea of having a crap detector.
I got pretty good at crap detection as a kid, in a simple way. I learned when kids were promising it was a good idea to do something stupid, it wasn’t a good idea, it was stupid. I could sometimes tell when I was being lied to. I figured out tv commercials were for selling not for truth. By high school, my crap detector was sharp enough to keep me from being led down too many primrose paths.
Crap detection is valuable for everyone, but more important perhaps for those of us who trust easily. I trust until trust is broken; believe until the untruth is obvious. I tend toward benefit of the doubt and second chances. These things are fine but not quite as enviable as they sound. My default view of the world was one dimensional; a little naive. Balance is better. A well developed crap detector, known to grown ups as intuition or gut feeling, can provide good balance.
I didn’t expect intuition or gut feeling to be a valuable professional tool, but it is. It tells you if “I’ll check on it and let you know” means that or means “I’m not going to check on it and you won’t hear back”. It tells you if “I hope we could partner on this” means “I want to collaborate” or “we can partner if you agree to do it my way”.
When I was a young professional, I was amazed at how other people could size up a room, read the dynamics when I. just. couldn’t. Once I was listening to the new CEO lay out his plan for new organizational structure and way of doing business. He said something like, “this new structure may have some bumps but will be much better in the end”. At the end of the meeting, everyone in the room but me, knew soon the existing leadership team would be culled. I thought he meant we’d all be around to see how much better…nope.
During this same time, I had a colleague/mentor with superb intuition. She knew instinctively when someone was being disingenuous (lying). She could hear when the words didn’t ring true and when body language screamed “liar, liar pants on fire”. She could walk in a room and know immediately she didn’t want to be part of whatever had just gone down. She knew what hostility in the air felt like, cued by angry faces, lack of eye contact in the room and sudden silence. Her intuition wasn’t magic, it was built on practice and experience.
It took me a while to figure it out. I do think intuition sharpens over time, but I also think some people got a better foundational crap detector at birth than I did. Other people seemed to read the subtext in a space while I would bumble around in it. How could body language and interpersonal dynamics be so confusing to me? I needed more practice to hear the vocal inflections, read the facial expressions, and feel the attitudes. I was pretty sure it wasn’t book knowledge. The coolest solution would have been to bring my dad to work with me every day to interpret the environment. Sadly, not the most practical. I was going to have to figure this out on my own.
It started to come together for me one afternoon about twenty years ago. I was one of ten or twelve executive directors who met with a new commissioner. We were debriefing outside the state office building on the sidewalk. A friend/colleague of mine said, “so Donna, you probably feel pretty good about what you heard, right?” Well, damn it. That question can only mean if I did feel good about it, I shouldn’t have. And yes, I did feel good about it. In fact, I felt energized. Finally a commissioner who was going to listen and engage. I let out a sigh and said “yes, I did feel good about him…what did I miss!?”
I was the newest ED in the group and the only one who heard and accepted his words at face value. There was little depth to what he’d said. He had nothing to back up the “yes, we’ll be a team” and “I’m here to make the system better for you”. He didn’t understand the complexities of our work. Everyone else heard it. He was a very nice man who turned out to be a very poor appointment to the position. He lasted less than a year.
Could I be successful without well developed intuitive skills? Sure. But I wanted to read the room. I wanted to read between the lines. I wanted to be able to trust what my gut was saying, to rely on the sense of hesitation or urgency cuing me how to respond or interpret a situation. This adult intuition thing was going to take more work than the childhood crap detector. It was a skill to be learned. I would have to practice using it. I would have to pay attention, listen hard, and practice.
Like I said in the beginning, intuition feels a little mystical, but it isn’t magic. Stellar intuition is the result of practice. Collecting information in the world sharpens it. I paid more attention to faces and body language. I had to learn to distinguish tones and be aware of word choices. I had to learn when not to speak right away when I felt unsure and perform a gut check instead. Sometimes I would walk into a room of people and try to read it. Listening to the conversation for a few minutes would tell me if I was accurate. The more I practiced using it, the more available it became.
My intuition is now nicely cultivated and serves me well if I listen to it. Listening to it means being present in the moment, eyes open, brain at attention. All of these things are more difficult to accomplish in real life than to write about, but the things you’ll see and hear and learn are worth it.
How do I know? I just do.
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