Listening To Your Inner Voice

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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.


My patient told me how disappointed he was in himself for 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:

  1. An instinct is just that:  a hunch, an impression, by definition lacking in concrete evidence.  It seems unfair to rely on something so indistinct when making important decisions.
  2. We inherently mistrust ideas without evidence to support them.  We want to be right when making important decisions and we’re best able to convince ourselves of our rightness when we can trace our argument from beginning to end without interruption and with a clear understanding of every step.
  3. We’re easily swayed by the opinions of others that contradict our instincts, especially if concrete evidence exists to contradict it.  This, even knowing as most of us do that facts and figures about past performance are often flawed indicators of future performance.


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 we felt about what we thought (a surprisingly difficult thing to do well), we find it’s 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.  In no way does this mean we can’t be fooled.  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.


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:

  1. Pause.  If you’re uncomfortable and don’t know the reason, don’t presume there isn’t one.  It may not be a good one, but a reason most assuredly exists.  In the heat of the moment, it’s often difficult to identify it so we often ignore what we’re feeling for the sake of expediency.  But most situations don’t require immediate decision making.  So if you’re uncomfortable for any reason, don’t try to figure it out in the heat of the moment.  Instead, don’t make the decision at all.  Say things like, “I need to think about this.”  Then take the time to do the detective work and go after your own thought process.  First, what did you hear or see that made you uncomfortable?  Once you’ve identified that (no easy task), then try to figure out why it made you uncomfortable.  Try on different reasons to see if they resonate.  Often you’ll know you’ve found the right one because discovering it feels like a eureka moment.  Even if you then reject your reasoning, at least you’ll understand why you felt uncomfortable and can make your decision with eyes wide open.
  2. Listen, not just to your mental reservations but to your body as well.  Discomfort with a decision often manifests as physical symptoms such as nausea, insomnia, agitation.  You may easily miss these as signs that you’re uncomfortable with the decision you’ve made or are about to make, but if you pay attention you’ll likely find you have the same physical reactions to ignoring your inner voice time after time.
  3. Hone your instincts.  If we’re going to rely on our gut, especially if doing so pits us against the well-reasoned opinions of others, we’d better make sure our inner voice is as accurate as possible as often as possible.  The more often you’re able to recognize why you have the instinctual reactions you do, the more comfortable you’ll become that your instincts can be trusted.  The reflective exercise I described above will open your thought process in a way that enables you to validate it.  If you find yourself consistently making the same thought error (e.g., you transfer your distrust of your bearded father onto all men with beards), becoming aware of it will free you of its power and improve the accuracy of your inner voice.  Learning about your own unconscious biases will weaken their influence over your intuition and make it wiser.

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.

Next weekThe Difference Between Easy And Difficult

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  • Wow, Alex!

    You just disseminated what I have always done myself and encouraged my young adult children, as well as others, to do when faced with very difficulty decisions…especially those which involve other people. “Take a breath, and just go with your gut.” You have managed to make my simple, seemingly foolhardy words make absolute sense. I speak as a nurse who truly values evidence-based practice, but always allows my “gut instinct” to sway my decisions in life.

    I sure hope I just interpreted your post correctly, because validation is a beautiful thing. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this article. I’ve had many occasions to go against “logic” and for no “rational” reason. The two most important times when I did, I paid a high price financially and emotionally. I’ve tried very hard since to follow that gut feeling, and it’s never led me the wrong way.

  • The problem with intuition is its reputation as a type of “sixth sense.” It makes scientifically minded people wary (including me until I started digging into it after reading M. Gladwell’s Blink). But intuition is in fact a sophisticated first reaction based on everything our senses (the normal ones) take in during a moment. The problem is all this information is integrated somewhere else than in the conscious parts of our minds, thus the distrust. It is probably the fruit of evolution in our human species. We seem to accept other types of quick responses of our bodies with less distrust, like the “danger alert” and the fight or flight response that comes with it.

  • Your description of the underlying rationale for intuition is great, very well done.

    But, what about the intuition that really has nothing specific underneath it.

    Examples: I was going cross-country skiing; my intuition said, bring an extra pair of poles. I thought about it, couldn’t figure out a logical reason to do so, so didn’t. My buddy got out of the car, and immediately broke his pole. Something was telling me about this in advance.

    I was going hiking with my hiking group,to an area I am pretty familiar with. I have a GPS unit, but had stopped carrying it on hikes over the past 6 months. Some intuition told me to bring the GPS. I did. We tried a different return trail, ended up at a dead end way up in the woods, and the GPS guided us back cross country. Why did I intuit to bring the GPS? I have no logical idea.

    Intuition certainly can be all of the information our senses and subliminal senses gives us. And, it can be something beyond that, some connection to other knowledge from who knows where.

    Marc: There very well may be legitimacy to the idea that we have access to knowledge that seems on the surface impossible for us to know, but I think that’s something entirely separate from what I meant by one’s “inner voice.”


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martina Schoppe, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: Listening To Your Inner Voice: […]

  • Alex,

    I believe intuition is a valuable guide. However, when life circumstances have caused us to endure bad situations, we learn accommodation, and this can blunt our intuition later.

    For this reason I think it is very important to re-wind and realize the cues/clues that one ignored resulting in previous detrimental outcomes, and be more mindful when they are next encountered. Without this examination, we become people who “keep running into” the same deleterious sorts, when we could convert ourselves into someone who walks the other way.

    Lisa: Excellent point.


  • Sometimes what’s wrong is the perfection. Most of us have failed at something, if simply because that’s what happens when you push your limits. Your story is stunning to me, not only in terms of the damaging emails, but the settlement and firing. Most middle managers who want to use their power against subordinates are good at spinning a more complex web of he-said, she-said and corporations rally around the higher ranking.

    RG: This employee’s behavior and boldness was stunning. I’m always amazed when people behave as he did without fear of being caught.


  • I think my training to be a lawyer suppressed that inner voice. I just don’t trust it. So this post has given me food for thought.

    Before making an important decision I carefully mull over the information I have, do more research if I think I need to, make a list of the pros and cons of taking a particular action. But I can’t remember the last time I added to the equation: “What’s my gut instinct here?”

    Looking back, I can think of several times it would have served me well if I’d listened to that inner voice. Ah, well. Never too old to learn a new skill. Thanks, Alex.

    Toni: I’m a thinker, too, far more inclined to trust my head than my gut. At least, I was until I realized my gut was really my head on speed. That’s why when it speaks I pause to understand it before moving forward. Even if I ultimately ignore it, it always has something important for me to consider.


  • Thanks for a great post, Alex. The last paragraph contains the core of my main regrets about not following my gut—not trusting myself rather being right/wrong.

    I have the following situation on hand right now and it could be an interesting extension to your posts. After a certain option became available, an enormous amount of energy was unleashed. When I didn’t take the plunge, didn’t hurry up on time to make it happen, immediately anxiety shot through the roof, sleep got disturbed, eating patters turned for the worst. A week of living like that and I no longer can even tell if I would take the option that excited me so much if it were to be available again (maybe). Such apathy came from NOT listening to myself. Today, just 10 days later, my intuition tells me that I should let it all go and rest for a while.

    It’s a strange thing how not listening to my gut does way more than just kills good options. And it’s especially confusing to have the same decision come up and no longer want to take any action.

  • Great post Alex, thank you. Many times I see on TV the police shows where the officer follows his gut instinct. Almost every time it is correct even in the face of contradicting evidence at the moment.

    I can say, after being an NYPD police officer for 12 years, one does hone their gut instinct. What I did learn was to step back and observe, be it a second or a month, to see what further unfolds. Most often facts would surface that confirmed the gut instinct.

    Following that instinct has saved my life when a knife was put to my back, following that instinct prevented a wrongful arrest, following that instinct led to the prosecution and conviction of a child molester. My work just honed my gut instinct. I truly believe we are born with it, like any instinct it must be nurtured and understood.

    As I read your story, I instantly wondered about body language, facial expression, tone of voice. I wondered about life experience and how we acquire the ability to automatically process these actions. Listening to that inner voice and understanding it takes practice, acknowledgment that it even exists, and acceptance that it is most likely telling us a truth that we may not want to hear.

    My greatest conflict comes when my wants do not agree with what my inner voice is saying. Usually this develops in relationships with other people. My gut tells me run, my wants tell me stay. My inner voice is actually quite more logical and practical than my emotional thought process. It also speaks in a fraction of a second. The debate begins when my gut and my (emotional) mind disagree. This is the time of distress and unease. When a decision is reached and an action taken, be it the healthiest or not, the debate is over and some semblance of inner peace returns.

  • Not meaning to be harsh but maybe your next post could be about owning your decisions instead of looking back in regret. While some self analysis is wise, regret almost never is. Regret based on a vague “somehow I should have known to do something different” is a pure waste of energy and a bit delusional, IMO.

  • Re: John Whitling

    Fewer things are more capable of awakening a person to their deeper truths than regret.

    The post closes with the fact that it’s easy to own decisions if one has followed one’s gut—even if the outcome is disastrous. It take deeper analysis to own a decision that blew up that was contrary to the gut feeling.

  • I never ignore my intuition anymore. It has taken years for me to learn to trust but it has saved me in certain situations.

  • I experienced a fairly dramatic/traumatic event several years ago when I ignored a strong gut feeling, and paid dearly for it. I ignored my intuition out of ego, ultimately, not to put too fine a point on it. I figured (from my head) that I was in too far to get out when my gut started screaming “NO!” at me, and it took nearly five years to undo the damage I could have avoided if I had heeded my intuition.

    All that is only to say why your post rings so incredibly true and clear for me, and to thank you from my heart for your thoughts.

  • I think human consciousness is evolving to a point where we will have a more integrated awareness. That is, logic and intuition will be adjuncts and not seen as opposites or adversaries. Our reluctance to use or depend upon our intuition is due to a current focus on logic and only logic. As we show more respect for the natural world and more compassion towards our human and animal neighbors we will grow into a better understanding of ourselves. Artists are compelled to follow their intuition; we have no other choice. That is a voice that screams and yells. It demands to be heard within us.

  • Sometimes people ignore their intuition, even in the face of reasons to pay attention to it, because of other personality flaws that influence them. A manager I know who generally has excellent judgment of character hired a professional who was accused of sexual harassment in another institution. He thought he would give the fellow the benefit of the doubt. Even though this otherwise bright, efficient employee is not behaving inappropriately vis-a-vis the opposite sex in this new setting, he is inappropriate in other ways, wants to leave early on a regular basis. I tried to warn the manager not to get involved with someone with a “history” but he ignored me, saying everyone deserves another chance. Sometimes I think we don’t listen to our intuition because we want to be proven right in spite of it. This is especially true if we are scientists or professionals who think intuition is an irrational reaction that should be ignored. Its not. When you have a bad feeling about someone, pay attention!

    Rebecca: Excellent points.


  • I highly recommend Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. He discusses just this concept of intuition or gut feeling, and he explains that we are always picking up on cues and clues without realizing it, and our intuition is often the result of our subconscious putting together the clues while we’re focused on something else. He tells many, many anecdotes where listening to one’s intuition is the difference between life and death.

    I have ADD, so it’s been difficult to learn the difference between unfiltered impulses and true intuition. What it comes down to is that the impulses are loud and pushy. My intuition is quiet and tugs on my mind to get my attention.

    Robin: That’s an intriguing way to distinguish between impulses and intuition. I wonder if others find that to be a good way as well.


  • Alex,

    I subscribe to Robin’s method of distinguishing between intuition and impulse. Intuition is present for much longer and is not really screaming. It’s almost an unconscious gut feeling that once in a while rears its head into our conscious thoughts. Impulses, on the other hand, are intense and short-lived and hence much easier to follow than intuition. That’s why introspection and “replaying the tape” is so important as it allows me to see which thoughts/feelings repeatedly came into my head. And those usually carry the kernel of truth even if my “rational” mind can’t back it up in any way yet.

  • Robin,

    You’re so dead on in disguising the two. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I also have a bit of ADD. It took me along time to know when my true intuition was nagging at me because I’ve also had the problem of unfiltered impulses vs true intuition, plus good people always believe even the most sinister human beings have some good in them and take the time to believe it and look for those qualities when they should just run for their lives. I notice now my intuition comes to me when I’m calm and keeping an open mind and considering all possibilities. I’m always able to tune into the subtle signs now to a person’s lies and manipulation. If you scratch the surface you’d be amazed at the little signs we ignore. It’s easy for someone to betray you when you trust them. I had a experience several years back with a woman who “posed” as a friend for years; she had a very cunning manipulative veneer as a soft spoken articulate well-mannered, sickeningly sticky sweet woman but looking back there were many signs I ignored. Thank God my intuition kicked in to her true nature and some of her diabolical motives surfaced just before we were getting ready to move in together and be roommates, and thank God for that as I can’t even imagine how complete her manipulation would have been then. It still makes me shudder to think about it, but that experience was the straw that broke that camel’s back in never ignoring my true intuition again. True intuition is a life saver. I think children already are in touch with it but it’s something we should encourage them to listen to all of their lives.

  • This may seem odd, but I trust my dog’s judgment. She’s quite selective about who she likes, and very clear about who she doesn’t like. We call her our “jerk detector.” Generally, if she doesn’t like someone, I don’t either.

    The few times I disagreed with her, she was right in the long run. This has been a very powerful validation of trusting my gut. After all, what else does a dog have to trust? She can’t really gather more data…

  • I think it is BS since most often my own gut feeling is just the opposite of my wife’s.

  • You are so right and the story is great. We all have have that inner voice and would save ourselves a lot of trouble if we just learn how to use it and tap into it. Sometimes when I am driving something will tell me just to be careful. And low and behold there is another driver that does something unexpected and I was ready. Great post.

  • […] performance, I remained attuned to my emotional reactions to her demeanor, trying to hear what my inner voice was telling me about her.  At the end of the interview I found myself excited about the prospect […]

  • Thank you.

    Because it’s hard to forgive or let go of something when someone you know committed and misused your identity and the way many think it’s okay and just let them, but it’s not… Again, thank you for your insight.