Business is often thought of as the land of logic: You do your research, evaluate financial projections, talk to experts and then make a rational decision. But not all business decisions can come from that place.
Sometimes the deal looks like the perfect next move on paper, but somewhere inside you sense that something just isn’t right. Justifying that feeling to colleagues or investors can be nearly impossible and arouse ridicule: “You want us to change directions based on an intuition? Should we look at the crystal ball on your desk next?”
Yet the idea that intuition can play a key role in making business decisions is hardly new. Malcolm Gladwell explored the concept of the “adaptive unconscious” or “intuition” in his book Blink, sharing numerous examples across many disciplines that showed how people make decisions using a combination of the evidence before them, as well as their feelings.
The ability to access intuition can also help with your client work. The CEO of Rubicon Consulting, Nilofer Merchant, shared in a Wall Street Journal interview that the skills needed to do her job include “that gut, intuition or analytic mindset that helps you to find the 'thing' that will allow you to know your customer incredibly well and thus meet [his or her] sometimes unnamed, sometimes unknown needs."
Here’s how you can use your feelings to make business decisions:
Related: Note to Self: Be Aware
1. Become more aware of inside feelings.
Somatic awareness is the ability to understand what the sensations in your body mean. It’s knowing the difference between the sensation that means “I’m afraid, but it’s worth doing” vs. the sensation that says, “I’m afraid because something is really, really wrong.”
To learn this skill, adopt a regular practice of simply paying attention, without judging what comes up. One exercise to try is to spend one week noticing what you feel while interacting with different people. Don’t try to analyze. Keep things simple and label the sensations as “comfortable” or “uncomfortable.” Leave it at jsut noticing, and the insights about why these sensations arise will come with time.
2. Tune into sleeping and digestion.
When you’re about to ink a new deal and can’t sleep at night or when you’re suddenly losing your appetite, don’t discount these signs. Sleeping and eating are two of the first places that can be affected when the body is picking up on subtle stress.
3. Take into account the wider context.
As you’re noticing simple feeling states, also note circumstances. Naturally, you’ll pick up on more discomfort in an office that's threatened with the possibility of layoffs than in a workplace that just scored a new round of investor funding.
What's significant are the times when you keep feeling an impulse to hesitate. When everyone else is celebrating the new round of funding and picking out new office chairs, yet you find yourself pausing, unable to join in, pay attention to that hesitation. It’s likely indicating something you need to understand.
4. Don’t hesitate to dig deeper.
Most people don’t feel totally comfortable making decisions solely on an intuitive flash, so give yourself license to do a little bit of extra research and really cover all your bases.
When you’re considering taking on a client and something just feels off, it’s easy enough to find out whom this person has worked with previously (and learn whether problems arose).
Or try a real-time experiment: When you’re about to drop big money to work with a new firm, try a surprise visit to its office or suggest putting off signing the proposal for one week. When you see whether the team can roll with this wrinkle, you’ll get more information about whether it’s right to move forward.
At the end of the day, when business decisions just don’t feel right, they often don’t seem worth it. As an entrepreneur who's in a position to curate the direction of your business, you can learn to pay attention to the signals that suggest a certain course of action isn’t the best next step and start to plan accordingly.