Most of us experience ‘gut feelings’ we can’t explain, like making snap judgements about people we've only just met, or falling in love with a property when we're house hunting. I had an intuition recently about a decision I'd made, and wasn't sure whether or not I should trust it. Portrait of beautiful young woman working in the office.

I'm in the process of moving to the Sussex coast and want to build a new network of business associates in the area. I've been researching different networking groups in an around the Brighton area and decided to join one. A few weeks later I wasn't sure about my decision. I had that nagging feeling, or intuition, that this decision wasn't right. But I couldn't put my finger on why I felt this way.

On the face of it, I had no rational evidence to explain my intuition. So I hesitated about whether to listen to it or not. But at the back of my mind were reminders of the times I didn't trust my intuition - only to regret this later on. Sound familiar?

The Science Behind Intuition

That's why I was delighted to discover an article outlining research by Professor Gerard Hodgkinson and his team at Leeds University Business School which said that these feelings – or intuition – are real and we should take our hunches seriously. The article explained that intuition is the result of the way our brains store, process and retrieve information on a subconscious level. Intuition, it transpires, is a real psychological phenomenon resulting from the two systems of reasoning we have evolved as humans. One is 'conscious thought' - slow and effortful - which comes from the thinking part of our brain. The second system of reasoning - quick and automatic - comes from the emotional part of our brain.

There have been many recorded instances where intuition has prevented catastrophe, and cases of remarkable recoveries when doctors followed their gut feelings. Yet science historically has derided the concept of intuition, putting it in the same box as parapsychology, phrenology and other ‘pseudoscientific’ practices.

After analysing a wide range of research papers examining intuition, the Leeds University research team concluded that intuition is the brain drawing on past experiences and external cues to make a decision. This intuitive decision happens so fast that it's at a non-conscious level. What we’re aware of is a general feeling, or hunch, that something is right or wrong.

According to Professor Hodgkinson, “people usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure or in a situation of information overload or acute danger, where conscious analysis of the situation may be difficult or impossible.”

He cites the recorded case of a Formula One driver who braked sharply when nearing a hairpin bend without knowing why. As a result, he avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead, undoubtedly saving his life.

“The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race,” explains Professor Hodgkinson. “The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event. Looking back, the driver realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.”

Professor Hodgkinson believes that all intuitive experiences are based on the instantaneous evaluation of both internal and external cues. “Humans clearly need both conscious and non-conscious thought processes, but it’s likely that neither is intrinsically ‘better’ than the other.”

How Does Intuition Work?

Our emotional brain - or intuition - remembers patterns, feelings, clues and cues from the past. It gathers deeply embedded memories and lessons learned and stores these up for future use. This explains why we can have a feeling that something is wrong, but not be able to explain why. The knowledge is stored in our sub-conscious which is picking up on tiny signs and patterns from previous times when something has happened. Intuition taps into our deepest knowledge built up over time.

When we have a feeling of absolute knowing, without knowing why this is, our intuition is at work. This could be deciding which way to go with our business. A nagging feeling that we should get a second opinion. An alert about a potential new employee. A gut instinct to look more closely at something that doesn't quite stack up. Intuition tends to show up when we're under pressure, overloaded with information short of time or in acute danger. Our conscious thought processes can't supply us with the answer so our intuition kicks in to help out.

Intuition In Business

Intuition is not a substitute for keeping on top of the financials and knowing the key metrics which drive our business. In fact it's knowing and having a deep understanding of these key numbers which enables us to spot when something is amiss. This is called 'business focus,' and according to Gallup research one of ten essential entrepreneurial strengths.

But intuition is a valuable asset in business. Steve Jobs famously attributed Apple's success to following his intuition. Intuition helps us to spot a trend in the market when focus groups are dealing us differently. It can tell us how to pitch to a prospective client. It can warn us when something's not quite right with an employee or a team. It's the inner voice which cuts through in a world of information overload.

In Summary

The key point, when it comes to understanding intuition, is that it's rooted in experience. The greater our expertise and the more experienced we are, the more we can rely on our intuition. When you next have a gut feeling, ask yourself two questions. Do I have the expertise to trust this feeling? What are the clues and evidence to back this hunch up? When you've answered both questions, perhaps with help from your team, you'll know whether you can validate your intuition or not.

Join The Conversation

Question: How do you tap into your intuition? I love reading your feedback so do let me know your thoughts in the comments box below.

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I’m Denyse Whillier, a London based business coach and consultant. I guide entrepreneurs from across the globe to achieve profitable, scaleable growth and create businesses that are Built To Succeed™. Built To Succeed™ is my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, 25 years’ experience at senior leadership and managerial level and training at Cranfield School of Management, the UK’s leading business school. It’s this background that sets me apart and helps my clients to get BIG results.

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