Steve manages a team of developers at a telecoms company. At a recent team meeting, he noticed a lot of shuffling of papers and people avoiding eye contact. He decided this was because the team was bored so he rapidly closed down the meeting.
In a later discussion with me, he realised that preceding the paper shuffling he'd challenged the team on commitment to a difficult project. When I suggested that the team's response might well have been discomfort rather than boredom, he agreed. He'd jumped to conclusions based on how he's interpreted what was going on in the room. It's a trap that many of us fall into.
Steve has the skill of reading the room (yes, this is a skill – there are many people unable to do this) and knowing the dynamic of the meeting had shifted. His intuition that something was up was spot on. Where it went wrong was his interpretation of what was going on.
The truth is we aren't as good as we think we are at reading other people. Extreme emotions of anger, sadness and happiness are easy to interpret but everything in between is quite a different matter.
My "This is a boring meeting" face looks a lot like "I'm worried if I will make the next meeting in time" face. Your confused expression may well look like annoyed or sad to others. Think about personal relationships and you will recognise how badly we are at even reading those who we know well.
One of the pushbacks I get from coaching clients is the idea that they have intuition or a gut feeling that is worth taking on board. It feels all to soft and fuzzy. This is particularly true with folk in the technology industry who are expertly trained in holding exclusively on to an evidence-based perspective on life.
I hold there is indeed a role for our intuition. It's not in high-stakes decision-making. The value is really in us navigating relationships with people.
The reality is that our brains are programmed to take on millions of observations in any one setting (one source suggests it's as much as 10 million observations.) However, our conscious mind is only able to keep a handful in mind at any time (same source says 45 – 100).
Our instinctive response is driven by our limbic brain (the prehistoric part of us), which is a lot quicker at processing data than that part of our brain that relies on logic and facts. So your gut feel is based on one big data set. Your intuition is your data scientist feeding you the key takeaway with support of the Watson computer processing power of the limbic brain.
Our intuition is not an alternative to evidence based decision making. I'm not proposing that you make decisions around acquisitions, product development or system design on intuition. Intuition is a data source best applied in relationships.
Let's stop dismissing our intuition and start to embrace this data channel in our relationships at work and at home.