“You just kind of run on instinct,” he said, “but that has to be validated. People can’t just take your word for it.”

It was a late afternoon conversation with a colleague and I was informing him of progress on a current project. I mentioned that I’d put that progress in a presentation deck ‘because I’ve been told people will take me more seriously that way’. He replied immediately, “Yes, it will help. You just kind of run on instinct, but that has to be validated. People can’t just take your word for it. Other people don’t just wing it like you do.”

While I’m almost certain it wasn’t his intention, I felt belittled. It’s frequently surprising to me, how one little paragraph can leave you feeling so … misunderstood. Instinct is not about gut feelings. Or even feelings at all. We might use that language to express ourselves, but Instinct is a science. Instinct alone is not a complete solution to understanding people or what must be done. It’s a tool that gives insight, but it must be applied alongside pragmatism, strategy and with a dose of compassion if Instinct is to get you anywhere at all.

The subtext of his statement was that instinct is somehow not an equal science (artform) to rationalization. A repeat of the centuries old tension between the Schools of Humanities and Sciences, despite both originating from the foundation. The rational view is that because Instinct is harder to define and quantify, it cannot be as reliable or as trustworthy as the other sciences. Instinct is something more primal than our civilised, evolved selves. This is far from the truth, however.

Instinct is as much as a science as mathematical theory. It is the collective noun we give to layers of distinct and meticulous habit, discipline and skill. It is a finely tuned practice of reading the visible and aural signals that human beings give one another. It is listening for the minutiae and tracing countless details about people, projects, relationships, influences, priorities.

Mostly, it is about understanding and knowing how to observe and engage with people, both as individuals and more challengingly in a room of people. It is about filtering important information from really important information and disregarding the trivial.

The trouble with Instinct, is that it is a science masquerading as a mystery. People with these skills can turn up into a room with little context or history and make enormous progress in single meetings, because they are tuned in to decipher what people want and what people have to give. What appears to be pulling something out of thin air, is actually closer to extracting what was sitting there all the time. Sometimes Instinct just helps you articulate it with people, or for people.

Why is it that salespeople sometimes have that ‘pull it out of thin air’ appearance? Why someone thinks I’m ‘winging it’ in a meeting room? Because the science of instinct is rarely a visible one. It’s mapping the details of what you see and hear at a million miles an hour, against what you already know and what you understand people want. It’s about seeing the connections, visible and invisible. It’s the observation that will tell you who the powerful people in a room are. Observing how they engage and interact will teach you how to approach, gauge and influence them. In the same way no-one is born with fully-formed speech, you cannot expect to have good Instinct, if you do not practice and craft the skills required to execute it. You cannot simply ‘turn up and perform’.

Most rational sciences you can teach to people with formulas and technical examples. But how do you teach someone to see or teach them to listen? Really, how do you? I have tried to explain how I am listening and observing in a room. It gets too complicated far too fast, but I understand that I must come to understand it, if I am to explain it.

How do we explain it?
There are all sorts of words for instinct. We call it intuition (I am highly intuitive on the Myers-Briggs scale), awareness, being tuned in. The more spiritual you are, the less rational and scientific your vocabulary for instinct is likely to be. Words like prophetic and healer appear. And while some people are wired with empathy, to read and respond to emotions and circumstances around them, the truth is sometimes the most emotionally disengaged have the best instincts around. Divulged of their own emotional entanglement to a situation, they can comprehend the information in front of them most appropriately.

When we make decisions because we ‘feel it was right’, often that means we have layered in our own conscience, our fears or agendas, our hopes or our risks. Instinct is collecting clues and paying close attention to where they map together and belong.

Spiritual abusers and manipulators are often masters of Instinct, seeing exactly where vulnerabilities exist to be taken advantage of. Many false spiritual leaders have enjoyed how instinct masquerades as mystery, in order to propagate their own mythology.

Instinct Is Fallible
Lastly, if anything solidifies instinct as a science, the sheer fallibility of it does. The finest instincts can be taken by surprise, miscalculate the signals and falter when it ought to stand firm.

So you train and develop your instincts in every setting, the same way you would to go to war. Work them, stretch them, test them. Recognize that you are a practitioner of a science and Instinct is something you should work hard for.

Then, one last thing. Respect those who have invested time and energy to fine tune their instincts. It’s not a strength that stands alone but when added to your talent pool, it can make a difference. When someone says, ‘that person has good instincts, let’s get them on the team,’ it’s because they know how to close a sale, how to progress a job, how to bring people together and how to listen well. They decipher the fantasy from the reality. You need them, even if it feels like their science is a mystery to you.