A patient who held an upper-level management position in his company once told me the following story: he was interviewing a candidate for a mid-level management position and thought, on the surface, the candidate was a star: enthusiastic, mature, intelligent, articulate, prepared, experienced, and visionary. After consulting with his other upper-level management peers who also interviewed the candidate, hiring him seemed a no-brainer. And yet, my patient told me, something made him hesitate.
Something about the candidate—he still couldn't explain what—just "rubbed him the wrong way." He was confused about feeling this as he'd also liked the candidate. But for some reason, he didn't feel the usual enthusiasm he liked to feel about people he hired. But...the candidate's references were excellent, he was eminently qualified for the position, my patient's colleagues all wanted to hire the candidate for their own divisions, and my patient couldn't explain his own doubts. So he hired him.
Six months later, one of his female employees accused the candidate of sexual harassment, produced damaging emails revealing threats the candidate made to her, sued him and the company, and obtained a hefty settlement. Needless to say, the candidate was fired.
THE BARRIERS TO LISTENING TO OUR INTUITION
My patient told me how disappointed he was in himself failing to listen to his inner voice. I commiserated with him, assuring him I could point to many instances in my own life when I didn't listen to mine. We got to talking about why we so often don't listen to our instincts and compiled the following list:
TRUSTING OUR INSTINCTS
My patient agreed his instinct could easily have turned out to be wrong, that the candidate could have been all the good things he appeared to be...but he wasn't. Was my patient's intuition the result of personal countertransference, unrelated to the candidate's pathology, felt as a mere coincidence, or was my patient picking up on subliminally presented evidence of the truth? We agreed that while we couldn't really know which was the case that the latter was certainly possible.
What is intuition except the rapid assimilation of our impressions of a person or situation that yields a reaction or judgment so quickly we're not sure how it arrived? An intuition is not, in most cases, based on nothing as we often allow ourselves to believe-which we do because we so often fail to perceive the complex machinery functioning beneath the surface that brought us to it.
But that machinery does function—in fact, it's only because it functions so quickly and so well that we doubt it functions at all. But if we stop to reflect, to trace back over what was said, what we thought about it, and how felt about what we thought (a surprisingly difficult thing to do well), we find it is often possible to unearth the pathway by which we arrived at our intuitive reaction, to identify the concrete reasons why we hesitated to make a decision that on the surface seemed a good one.
We really are all experts at reading one another, having all practiced it all our lives. This doesn't mean we can't be fooled, by any means. We project our own biases, our own fears, our own pathology onto the intentions of others all the time. But if we become practiced at recognizing when we're doing so in order to distinguish when we're not—when we're more or less objectively responding to the person or situation we're evaluating—our intuition (as others, including most famously Malcolm Gladwell, have argued) can be a powerful tool to help us ferret out the truth.
HOW TO MAKE INTUITIVE DECISIONS
I told my patient we ignore our intuition at our peril and offered the following approach I try to take myself when uncomfortable about a decision I'm about to make:
A well-trained intuition is almost always right—though whether or not it is can, of course, only be known in retrospect. When I pointed this out to him, my patient told me he didn't regret not listening to his intuition because it was correct; he regretted not listening because it made him uncomfortable with himself. He thought he'd set a dangerous personal precedent in not trusting himself and that he would rather have followed his instinct even if it ended up being wrong. Mistrusting his inner voice chipped away at his general sense of confidence and that, he thought, "was a worse thing to have happen than being wrong." I told him I agreed.
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