How to trust your gut

Have you ever had a gut feeling? Or made a decision based on instinct? How did it work out?

Trusting your gut, can keep you safe. Your gut can guide you and help you build your confidence and resilience. My own gut instinct has saved me on more than one occasion. It has also guided me into making sound career choices and other exciting, big decisions. It’s also on occasion stopped me from doing things. I’m also aware of the times when I’ve gone against my instincts and really regretted it later, wondering why I didn’t tune in to that valuable internal voice that we all have within us.

How to trust your gut

The key to learning to trust your gut is when making any decision is to take a minute to listen to yourself. If you hear your actual voice saying yes while inside you’re silently screaming no, my advice is to ask for some time to think, or simply take a breath and pause before the yes or no escapes your mouth.

Use that moment to breathe, check in with yourself, and give the answer that feels congruent with who you are and what you want, not the one that always involves following the herd. Trusting your gut means having the courage to not simply go with the majority. It can be about holding your own.

Tune into your body

Learning to trust your gut is about paying attention to your body. Some people will experience an actual ‘gut’ feeling of stomach ache or indigestion in an uncomfortable situation.

Ask yourself ‘what’s really going on here?’ and explore what’s happening behind your body’s response to the situation. What can your reaction or instinct teach you? Understanding that can be a clue and can help you either learn something about yourself, the situation, or other people. The answers are often within us.

Sometimes we’ll get this ‘something’s not right here’ feeling and cannot quite put our finger on it or explain it. That can still be incredibly useful and really guide us away from danger, even if we don’t know the reason.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell also argues this, making the point that sometimes our subconscious is better at processing the answer we need, and that we don’t necessarily need to take time to collect hours and hours of information to come to a reliable conclusion.

You have to have a clear head to trust your gut

Energy, sleep, and good nutrition are so vital to nourishing our minds, as well as our bodies. There are times when your instinct could lead you astray, and one of these is when you are hungry, “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry!), tired, or anxious. If this is the case – and it may sound obvious – do consider sleeping or eating on it before making an important decision.

There is, in fact, a connection between our gut and our brain, which is where terms like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ originate from. Stress and emotions can cause physical feelings. Ignoring them might do more harm than good.

Say what you think and feel

Listening to your gut and really paying attention to it might involve standing up and being counted, calling something out, or taking a stand. As someone who works for myself, I’ve become used to following the less-travelled road, and that’s given me the chance to strike out on my own in other ways, too.

As they tell you in the planes, ‘put your own oxygen mask on first,’ and part of that self-reliance is knowing what you really want and like and what is safe and good for you, including what resonates with your personal and business values. Making good decisions with this in mind means making choices that do not go against your own beliefs, even when it may mean taking a stand. This is part of trusting yourself and trusting your instincts.

This does not always mean taking the ‘safe’ option, although keeping ourselves safe is an important part of the process. This is how we learn and grow, by following our own inner compass. When you do take risks, or trust your gut and go outside of your comfort zone, or choose the less popular option, spending some time researching the facts can stand us in good stead, too.

You’ve still got to do your research

As well as listening to your instincts, it’s also important to do your research. I had a gut feeling about the need for a learning and development network when I noticed my clients getting stuck with the same problems. I set up and now run the Lucidity Network, but instead of simply going for it, without evidence, I followed up on my instinct with research and crowdfunded for the set up to test the concept.

Challenge your assumptions

When you look at the assumptions you’re making, this could also be a clue to mistakes you are making.

In order to check that our instincts are wise, we need to ask ourselves what blanks we might be filling in, either consciously or unconsciously. This is true not just when it comes to our own decision-making. It’s also true when we are listening to someone explain a problem or situation, and we’re about to jump in and give some advice. If we can learn to be aware of our own assumptions, we can become better listeners and better decision makers, too.

A useful tool to become more aware of your assumptions before making a final decision is simply to ask yourself, ‘What assumptions am I making about this situation or person?’

Identify your biases

Bias exists, and it’s part of the human condition. All of us have it, and it colours our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realizing.

Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level in our brains. Our subconscious brain processes information so much faster than our conscious brain. Quick decisions we make in our subconscious are based on both our societal conditioning and how our families raised us.

Our brains process hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily. We unconsciously categorize and format that information into patterns that feel familiar to us. Aspects such as gender, disability, class, sexuality, body shape and size, ethnicity, and what someone does for a job can all quickly influence decisions we make about people and the relationships we choose to form. Our unconscious bias can be very subtle and go unnoticed.

We naturally tend to gravitate towards people similar to ourselves, favouring people who we see as belonging to the same ‘group’ as us. Being able to make a quick decision about whether someone is part of your group and distinguish friend from foe was what helped early humans to survive. Conversely, we don’t automatically favour people who we don’t immediately relate to or easily connect with.

The downside of that human instinct to seek out similar people is the potential for prejudice, which seems to be hard-wired into human cognition, no matter how open-minded we believe ourselves to be. And these stereotypes we create can be wrong. If we only spend our time with and employ people similar to ourselves, it can create prejudices, as well as stifle fresh thinking and innovation.

We may feel more natural or comfortable working with other people who share our own background and/or opinions than collaborating with people who don’t look, talk, or think like us. However, having a mix of different people and perspectives that can be genuinely heard is also a valuable way to counter groupthink. Diversity stretches us to think more critically and creatively.

Trust yourself

It is possible to learn how to truly trust yourself? Like any talent or skill, practicing trusting your gut is the best way to get really good at it.

Looking back at decisions you’ve made, what you did, what the outcome was, and what you’ve learned can help you become a stronger decision maker and develop solid self-trust and resilience. Making a mistake does not mean that you are not great at decision-making; it’s a chance to grow and learn, and the only mistake is to ignore the lesson in that experience.

If you are in the habit of asking others for their input, then the trick here is to choose your inner circle wisely. Having a sounding board of people who have your best interests at heart is a valuable asset, and, combined with your own excellent instincts, can make you a champion decision maker.

The bottom line

The above tips are all actionable and easy to start immediately. Trusting your gut is part of your decision-making process. It’s about slowing down and listening, being aware of your assumptions and bias, doing your research AND listening to what you’re your gut is telling you. Tune into what your body is telling you, trust your gut and start making sound decisions today.

A version of this blog as first published at Lifehack. 

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