Part 2 - What do we sense when we feel intuition?

articles by nick intuition leadership sensing wayfinding Jan 25, 2022

The simplest answer to the title question is: it depends on you. 

Intuition presents itself in a wide range of ways for me. In this article I’ll share examples of the sensations presented with leaders of innovation that I interviewed to give you a sense for what you too might be unknowingly experiencing in the workplace. 

If there are skeptics in your life (or maybe it’s your own voice in your head) that says “it’s JUST a feeling” you’re not alone. The dominant culture many of us grow up in emphasize our use of intellect as the most valid source of information.

Our intellect is not the only form of intelligence we have access to though. Our brains are intricately linked to other parts of our body through extensive networks - be they our nervous system, chemical signals (hormones, neurotransmitters, and modulators), or our microbiome. Research has found, for example, that tweaking the balance between beneficial and disease-causing bacteria in an animal's gut can alter its brain chemistry and lead it to become either more bold or more anxious. All this to say that what we sense in and around our bodies contains a vast world of information, most of which only a small percentage of our rational brain is able to consciously process.

“It’s like looking at a great piece of art of the first time”

That quote comes from Michael Eisner, CEO of Walt Disney when asked about how his body feels when he accesses his intuition. Some neuroscientists suggest that what we call the “mind” is really the relationship between brain and body. This could explain sensations we might feel in our stomach, throat, chest or skin.

There’s a few theories behind why we “feel” when intuition shows up:

  1. What we sense can ‘code’ memories helping us to recognize feelings we have felt before as a more efficient way to access information 
  2. The surge of the “aha” sensation may be the process of our conscious minds learning something our subconscious mind already knows. 
  3. We may require a stronger presence of feeling to enhance the information we receive when situations are unfamiliar. For unfamiliar, non-typical situations we might send the data via the (feeling-rich) ‘body-loop’ while less novel situations are assessed via the (feeling-poor) linear processing ‘brain-loop’

What does intuition feel like for you?

Every leader I spoke with was able to locate and connect with either emotional, sensory, or somatic experiences that were connected to their decision-making. 

The following are some common themes from participants’ responses. See if you can identify with any of these sensations:

The sense of relief

When some participants arrived at their course of action, they described a lightness, weightlessness, or relief at knowing the path forward to take. While they were not fully sure what data was connected to the knowing, the clarity connected to the knowing provided an affective uplift.

"It felt like 'WOW!' this relief that it is not going to be as hard as we thought. We felt really discouraged after the last option failed. Mainly I felt relief" 

"When I am mentally, emotionally, psychologically healthy – I really listen to my gut. My gut said ‘yea, go for it.’ It wasn’t clenched or trying to hold me back"

“It takes some of the weight off of your shoulders. It’s kind of liberating in a way. When you are on a team without that, it is a fog. Then ‘hey!’ a hand just snatches you and says this is the way to go." 


The heaviness or wrongness of ‘what it will take’

Other participants describe getting ‘caught up’ in the emotion of finding a fit for a product in the past and knowing that it will take hard work before it works out. They described this as a heaviness or a sobering moment. This came from intuition-based knowing that went beyond the exciting spark of a eureka moment. Instead this intuitive knowing revealed it was going to require a longer road of more rational, analytical work to prove out the initial insight.

“Sobering, deflating, daunting. It’s a difference between a flash of inspiration and what really has value – it’s your willingness to grind it through and make the idea happen.” 

"The task at hand was the right thing to do but it was going to be a hard sales and contracting cycle. Hard and long. Even though we were making progress..."

"The feeling I had; I knew I was probably doing something “wrong.” I knew I wasn’t doing something the majority of the company would approve of at least on paper." 

"In my body I'm feeling anxious in general - I was disappointed and I knew I was going to have to disappoint somebody" 

The ‘knowing’ it was right

In at least three interviews, participants’ responses connected with elements of morality through statements such as “I felt it was the right thing to do, I didn’t question it,” or “It felt right. I believe if you do the right things for the right reasons it will work out.". This kind of language does begin to introduce phrases we commonly use in the workplace when we say someone “believes in an idea” and explores how our beliefs or morals might show up as intuitive felt-sense. 

One person reflects on the role of faith in the process.

“Faith? Yea…very much, was kind of like, knowingness was somehow fueled by the faith. They are very, very intertwined. I’m finding it hard to describe. Are they the same or different? Honestly, in many ways they are the same.” 

In Choosing Where to and Where Not to Go

Intuition played just as an important a role to help identify a path for how to progress an innovation as much as it did for when to shut down or walk away from an innovation.

The leaders I spoke with felt walking away or shutting down an idea was just as an important element of an innovator's ability to succeed in the longer-term. 

More Cues and Signals

Other cues and signals showed up in the environment for participants through the form of social, industry, and physical forms. All of these contributed to the pattern matching that each person used to make their decisions.

  • Social signals
    • Are people behaving differently around this subject or idea (either in favor or against the idea)?
    • Are decision-makers trusting the idea absent of the normal amount of data that is usually asked in the organization? 
  • Industry signals
    • Has your external environment started to talk about this subject in a new way (e.g. rise in publications, shift in conference talk topics)
  • Physical signals
    • Are you experiencing beauty and effortlessness with the physical thing you are working with? Is it clunky in a way you can’t quite name?

Try This: Deepen Your Listening for Your “Yes’” and Your “No’s”

One of the simplest exercises you can do to come into contact with your intuition is to start with listening for your ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’. This practice comes from my fellow Guide at Wayfinding, Larissa Conte

You can start this practice simply, by looking at your calendar for the week. 

Let go of any rational mental chatter, and try to listen in as you scan each event you have scheduled for a clear ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. 

For things that a clear answer arrives, next ask what is underneath this clarity?

It’s important to discern the difference between ‘clarity’ and ‘rationale’. Remember, if intuition is recognizing things without knowing how we do the recognizing, it's less important that we know the rationale behind a strong intuitive sense and more important that we understand the source of clarity. 

Is it being in integrity with your values? Is it the nature of the relationship you have with the person? Is it the energy you feel when you are in that meeting? Any of those sources of clarity are more than sufficient for you to deepen your listening to your inner Yes and No. 

If you’ve enjoyed this, be sure to check out other parts of the series coming soon:

  • Why explore intuition as a leader?
  • What do we sense when we feel intuition?
  • What does intuition decision-making look like?
  • Intuition as an essential ingredient at the front-end of innovation
  • How language helps and hurts: intuition as a "soft skill"
  • How can we make workplaces inclusive for intuitive leaders and teams?
  • Intuition as a source of wisdom when wayfinding through the chaos

Want to talk?

If you’d like to explore more ways you can bring your sensing into your life and work consider joining our Vital Leadership program kicking off February 2022. Schedule time to talk with Nick for 30m here to learn more. 



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