"Gut feeling": It's simple, really: Just get out of your own way.

Getting in Touch With Your Gut

Psychologists have a term to describe people who are in unusually close contact with their gut feelings "high intuitives." While you can't teach such skills the way you teach multiplication tables, everyone can hone their instincts to some degree. Here are a few guidelines:

Practice, practice. This is the most important thing. "Gut instinct is basically a form of pattern recognition," says Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor and psychologist. The more you practice, the more patterns you intuitively recognize. List decisions you've made that turned out right -- and mistakes, too. Then reconstruct the thinking. Where did intuition come in? Was it right or wrong? Are there patterns? Highly intuitive people often let themselves be talked out of good ideas. "Generally you're better with either people or things," says Manhattan psychologist and executive coach Dee Soder. If you're intuitively gifted about people, write down your first impressions of new colleagues, customers, and so on -- you want to hold on to those gut reactions.

Learn to listen. People come up with all sorts of reasons for ignoring what their gut is trying to tell them. Flavia Cymbalista has developed a decision-making approach adapted from a psychological technique known as "focusing." She calls it MarketFocusing, and she uses it to teach businesspeople to find the "felt sense" that tells them they know something they can't articulate. "You have to express your willingness to listen to what the felt sense has to say, without an agenda of your own," she says.

Tell stories. Fictionalize a problem as a business school case or as happening to someone else. That can free up your imagination. Dave Snowden, director of IBM's (IBM) Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity in Wales, has been working with antiterrorism experts and finds that they think more creatively if he poses problems set in a different time -- the Civil War, for example. Another kind of storytelling is what cognitive psychologist Gary Klein calls a "pre-mortem": Imagine that your project has failed and gather the team to assess what went wrong.

Breed gut thinkers. Dismantle the obstacles that prevent people from using their guts. High turnover rates, for example, are inimical to developing the deep expertise that hones intuition. Since gut feelings are inherently hard to express, don't let people jump on a dissenter who hesitantly says, "I'm not sure ... " Instead, say "Tell us more." Some leaders go around the table twice at meetings to give people a chance to put hunches into words. To sharpen your intuitive thinking, you have to get out of your own way; to foster it among those around you, you have to get out of their way too.

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