Intuition and trust

Back when I first started my business, I had a DE customer that made wild karate uniforms, they had crazy (fun) style lines converging over the fronts that formed a pattern when the gi was belted. Being that the patterns were asymmetrical, it mattered that each side of the pattern pieces were labeled properly. Just before I was ready to ship, I noticed that the gi in the sketch was belted incorrectly, right over left rather than the reverse and the style lines were designed accordingly -and I made the pattern to match the sketch. This meant the designer made a simple error but that I needed to reverse the labeling of the pieces (a five minute correction to the pattern) to prevent a disaster but that wasn’t something I was going to do without client approval. I was new at freelancing and very intimidated because the clients were very officious and professional, using forms and specs that no small operations were doing at the time. So, I emailed the guy and asked about the position change, merely a perfunctory matter I thought. He wrote and said he’d ask the designer. He wrote again later to say she said to leave it as it was. I got a bad feeling about it. Correction, I’d been having bad feelings all along but there wasn’t anything I could pin it on. If this went through, they could lose a lot of money. Something wasn’t right.

My introduction comes as the subject of intuition has arisen for the third time in as many days. Not intending for this to become the subject of polemic debate so you’re perfectly free to disagree but I don’t think there’s such a thing as intuition. In terms we typically define it, intuition is a gut level impression we get about a person or situation and for which we are at a loss to understand why.

I think there’s more to it than that and I should say that I didn’t come up with this theory, I read it ages ago somewhere but understanding the mechanisms of intuition allows me to move from indecision to informed understanding. I’ve dodged more bullets than I can count with this process that I’ll show you now.

The brain is a marvelous thing. You’ve got awareness in the fore part and the ability to articulate your interpretation of what’s going on in the environment. The back of the brain has some amazing stuff going on too only it can’t talk to the forepart so you don’t know the conclusions it has drawn from the environment. It’s when the back of the brain has put cues together that you get a gut sense or feeling of intuition. To make the most of it, you need to learn how to read your back brain to harvest the messages it has put together.

Example: your child clumsily attempts to conceal something the minute you walk in the room. That’s a cue. You’ve learned to associate the child’s reaction to your presence as meaning that the situation requires further investigation. There’s no intuition involved for you to know that because you’ve learned to interpret this cue.

But what of cues that your fore brain hasn’t learned to articulate? Or hasn’t learned that given cues are indicative of requiring further investigation or analysis? That’s “intuition”. Here’s an example of that.

You go out to dinner with somebody you’re thinking of doing business with. They are pleasant enough, the details seem equitable but your intuition tells you something is amiss. Problem is, there’s nothing your fore brain can interpret as being a rational cause of discomfort but still, your dis-ease persists. I know what many people (most of them women) do, because you can’t articulate exactly what’s bugging you, you elect to give them the benefit of the doubt because that’s the only fair thing to do. Right? Well, maybe you shouldn’t. First you should try to pull cues from the situation which can help the back brain to communicate. Rationally. By way of example, I’ll continue with my story I opened with.

Part of me thought that I’d done my part, I was absolved of responsibility because the customer wanted the patterns as is even though they were based on a bad sketch. My gut kept saying don’t deliver the work -and it wouldn’t budge (I was now filled with dread) because none of this made sense. Why would a customer want a bad pattern? First thing I did was validate my intuition. Starting from a position of agreeing with it turned the situation on its head. In order for me to lose, the client would be getting a big gain. But how could that be? If this went through as is, they could lose big time. Something wasn’t right.

So I sat down and made a list of things that bugged me about this customer. Anything and everything whether it “mattered” or had anything to do with the job. I had a sense that even if I did as asked, this would end up burning me somehow. My intuition was telling me I could still be hurt so in writing the list, I was hoping to figure out how that could happen.

One thing that bugged me was all the specs they sent. Beautiful forms, gorgeous letterhead with detailed specs but you know, they were all wrong. But because it looked so official (and I was intimidated being new at freelancing), I wasted a lot of hours I didn’t charge for going through it line by line because it wasn’t adding up. I thought it was me, that I was missing something so I was trying to find a way to make their way work.

The second thing was how the enterprise was run, it didn’t seem congruent. The local guy claimed to be the production manager. The big time designer (never named) worked out of offices in NY. Ditto for the CEO. The local guy ran interference and was the only one I had contact with. This didn’t make sense. Patterns work directly with design, you need ongoing communication so being kept at arms length and constantly having to go through intermediaries didn’t make sense. The local guy could never answer a question or clarify directly. He always had to get back to the CEO or designer first. It didn’t make sense that he had no discretion to run a job. If his higher ups didn’t trust him, why did they hire him? Meaning, so not only should I not trust him, I shouldn’t trust them either.

There were a few other things that were “immaterial” (like needing new patterns for styles that had already been produced before he came to me) but my sense of dread was so strong that I decided I wouldn’t turn these patterns over. The minute I made the decision, I felt a huge wash of relief. Which was strange because I needed the money desperately. Before I had time to tell the client, I got an email from him saying that all invoices would be paid 30 days after receipt, that previous arrangements were rescinded. Since I’d already made my decision to refuse to deliver (but not looking forward to saying so) I wrote back and said his company didn’t have the right to determine my business’s payment policies. I reiterated I would be paid upon delivery or I could send the invoice which they could pay in 30 days and then I’d deliver the patterns afterward. He became irate (a whole other story) but neither of us would budge. Which was fine for me because I didn’t have to tell the client I wasn’t going to deliver their work anyway.

So this is how it all turned out -it took several years to get the whole story but it didn’t begin to unravel until 6 weeks later when the contractor called me wanting to know if I’d been paid because she hadn’t gotten her check (she had gone along with the new payment policy). We did a little leg work and found the guy left town (no forwarding address) after picking up the last production run. It was only several years after that when I connected with his El Paso contractor to get the story on what happened before he came to us. His previous pattern maker said he had similar reservations about pattern specs and had suggested explicit changes which the client declined. But he delivered the patterns anyway which burned him with the contractor because the client told the contractor the pattern maker had messed up and would the contractor fix the patterns because he wasn’t going to pay the pattern maker for his mistakes (handily, he provided the itemized list from the pattern maker). What a slime. It’s one thing to not pay but it’s quite another thing to impute someone’s reputation to get out of paying. Also, there was no designer or CEO with corporate offices in NY, just the local guy. He’d come to me and my contractor friend after he’d burned his bridges in El Paso for non payment which is why he needed new patterns for existing styles because the contractor kept them as a lien.

In the end I lost money for doing work I wasn’t paid for. I still have those patterns too; anyone want a gi? However, my reputation didn’t take a hit which would have been insult to injury. The point of the whole story is that I used what I thought was intuition as a exercise to sort my misgivings into clarity with rational non-subjective reasons to extricate myself from the situation.

The next time you have a bad feeling, you need to map it. Clear your mind and write down any and every single misgiving you have no matter how stupid, trivial, childish or irrelevant to the situation. Things like, do they salt their food before they even taste it? You don’t want to be involved in manufacturing or engineering with someone who does that, no way no how (long story). Many things may seem like emotional reactions that have nothing to do with business or being fair or open minded -you know, giving the benefit of the doubt in the absence of proofs. These are cues your inarticulate deep brain has put together in a pattern but does not have the means to tell your front brain. As you do this, more things will occur to you that you hadn’t recognized before. You won’t get too far into it before you realize that a pattern has emerged and your course of action is clearer.

The point is, if you have a gut reaction without rational reasons, your deep brain is trying to tell you it has put the cues together. Give it a chance to speak so you can move forward decisively without feeling guilty that you haven’t given someone the benefit of the doubt.

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22 comments

  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    I tend to agree with you, Kathlen, that intuition is information we have but that we can’t articulate. Had I been in the same situation I probably would not have made a list and have just given the guy “benefit of the doubt” and got burned. Valuable lesson learned and it doesn’t just apply to DEs. Thanks for posting this and your resolution.

  2. Lesley says:

    There is a book called “the gift of fear” and it talks about this – actually understanding intuition and what it’s trying to tell you about a situation, and how people are conditioned into giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than making a scene. It’s more to do with assult and protecting yourself, but it can definately be applied here, too.
    (It’s been a while since I read it – I should really pull out my copy again.)
    And I would love a pattern for a ghi, if you are offering!

  3. NancyDaQ says:

    Great post! I had a similar thing happen in a previous job. The customer looked ok on paper but acted squirrely. Turned out she had previously had legal issues with fraud and neglect of her patients, then filed bankruptcy on top of that. We ended up not doing the loan but dealing with her wasted hours time. Not just mine but colleagues’ time too.

  4. jasmin says:

    Thank you so much Kathleen – it took me a *long* time to figure out my hindbrain was often smarter then the nice logical bit.

    The only other thing I’d add (having not done it too many times to count) is take notice of the first niggle, rather than the tenth, because the effort involved to resolve / extract is exponential. Once you’ve been ‘nice’ it is harder and harder to get things back on track.

    And if someone demonstrates an inability to receive all information available, then make a decision (salt before taste, decide based on a whim) all bets are off – they’re too unpredictable!

  5. Leslie says:

    thanks Kathleen! I really like what Jasmin has to say..”Once you’ve been ‘nice’ it is harder and harder to get things back on track.” There have been times when I wanted the business so badly that I compromised my best business practices and was too nice..but no more. Believe it or not, I’m really thankful for one particular client that took advantage of me being so nice..the whole situation taught me a very valuble lesson that I am forever thankful for!

  6. Kathy Jo says:

    I love this post, I have been thinking about this a lot since we spoke and I will be talking about this many, many times as I relive my story on my blog. I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way but even after being burned I have been stuck, thank you for helping me unstick myself. I’ve already used your method and will not be working with someone that gave me the “feeling” I mapped it out and I will steer clear of him thanks to you . I am starting to see the writing on the wall long before. It’s funny because I have always used my “instincts” for everything except this business and I think it’s because I told myself they know more than me and I’m the new kid on the block. Well now I’ve circled the block a few times, I will do much better moving forward.

  7. Erika says:

    Your experience and the things you learned sound very much like the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. It is about the brains power to come to an instant conclusion – intuition – and all the work and knowledge behind that conclusion.

  8. Elle says:

    Shouldn’t kimonos always be wrapped left over right (except if you’re dead because then the reverse is applied)? I won’t call that a simple error ;)

  9. Marie-Christine says:

    I agree with Heather that your intuition gets sharper if you pay attention to what it says. It is something that can improve and serve you well, but not if you let it rust in a corner.

    But I’d also like to say that much of the literature I’ve read on the subject makes me deeply uneasy, when it attempts to give practical advice. Yes, there are flashes of instant insight one can get, which aren’t on the same level than rational thought. (Note however how here Kathleen pulled in her rational side to evaluate the evidence and decide what to do). Unfortunately, much of these ‘instant flashes’ are just as much based on stupid unconscious prejudice as on brilliant subconscious insight. They can just see you’re this or that type of person and you get dismissed before the first blink. Should you present an appearance that contradicts people’s prejudices, you get dismissed even faster because they can’t peg you neatly and their instant reading is just ‘confused’. This is how the white guy ends up with the job in many cases. But most people are more complex than you can perceive in the first second, mercifully. And truly good liars will fool even the most intuitive, at first.

    So I’d like to urge everyone to listen to their intuition, of course, but to do like Kathleen and not leave reason out of it entirely, to examine -why- they feel something. Do not allow yourselves to fall into instant judgments, like the ‘what’s your sign?’ crowd..

  10. Trudy says:

    All I know is that whenever I’ve ignored those ‘little niggles’, I’ve been bitten badly. It’s also difficult, if you’re an honest & ethical person, to understand the logic & possible behaviors of someone who isn’t like you, e.g. honest & ethical. Strangely enough, I have an easier time seeing through dodgy men than women, it’s usually immediate and I’m rarely wrong; fortunately, my darling husband is the opposite, he sees the dodgy females clearly & quickly. Good job we work together!

    But I’ll admit to salting my food before tasting it…does that make me a bad person, or just a salt lover?

  11. Ruth says:

    I think it was Germaine Greer in the Female Eunuch in the 1970 (I read it in ’79!) who said that “women’s intuition” is not uncanny or mystic in any way. It’s just minute observation of seemingly irrelevant facts which are then collated. She argued that the powerless have an incentive to watch the powerful much more carefully than the powerful watch the powerless. So “intuition” allows you to preempt a blow (of any kind, physical, social, financial, etc.) against you. So, your relative powerlessness (needing the work), switched on your super-senses (your powers of observation) as a defence. The reason it’s not “mystical” is you then feed all those observations through your intellect and come up with an analysis. And it worked! And it works. So keep on doing it. :)

  12. Kathleen says:

    I agree with a lot of what you said Marie-Christine, which is why it took me so long to publish this. And you’re right, it’s important (I think) to rationalize impressions from the situation because there are so many grey areas. For example, most of you would get a negative impression if someone couldn’t maintain eye contact but for some, that’s close to impossible or it’s culturally determined but that alone should not be enough to not trust someone. If anything, someone bent on deceiving you would go to lengths to look you in the eye as a way of assuring you of their sincerity.

    Ruth: interesting points about power. A word to the wise would mean the powerful should be more aware of this mechanism. Or maybe they don’t need to as much. Maybe one reason they’re powerful is that they have all these cues figured out and they sit in the forefront of their brains becoming rules of thumb with which to make faster assessments. I do know that with exposure, I’ve developed heuristics to quickly slog through someone’s story/claims/website etc to know if they’re what they claim to be.

    Trudy: A C-level engineer taught me that. It’s not that they’re bad people. He says he’ll never hire someone who salts his/her food before tasting it because they are less likely to evaluate a situation before plying their fix to it.

  13. Natasha says:

    Totally agree with the concept that “intuition” doesn’t exist. I work as a hospice nurse now instead of being the fashion student I was 5-6 years ago when I found this site and “met” Kathleen. A lot of hwat I have learned here has carried over to my new career.

    My patients often applaud me for “intuatively” knowing when a patient is packing up and ready go and when to call the priest to arrive just in time to give final rights before they pass on.

    Am I exceeding spiritual and have my finger on the pulse of life? No it’s just the body of information needed to make observations and analyze a situation is so ingrained into my forebrain that it is automatic and my “intuition” is merely a warning light in my brain. However when relaying to patients family’s I always tell them I have an instinct. Mainly because hospice is not an exact science and patients sometimes die on their own schedule despite their being no physiological reason for them to still be alive. Secondly though because instinct seems more empathetic than cold hard facts.

  14. Marie-Christine says:

    Yes, definitely, to your point on eye contact Kathleen. A person could be a bit autistic or Chinese without being evil or dishonest. Often the opposite, even :-). Much of what is taught in pop-psychology or business education as sure-fire ways to evaluate honesty is completely culturally dependent. And liars read these textbooks too, you know.

    But I think it’s important to know a study (Ekman, O’Sullivan, & Frank, 1999) of honesty detection by -professionals-, which included police officers, psychologists, FBI agents and so on, selected by their peers for their better than average reputation, and which found them to be hardly better than your usual college student, that is hovering around 50%, or your basic coin toss. A few individuals were better than average, yes, reaching about 75% accuracy which isn’t terribly brilliant. So do you think you’re better than that? Hmmm. Whatever.

    I’ve met a few really good liars in my own life, like a roomate who fooled dozens of perfectly bright people into being victimized, or my stepfather who was a real ace with the psychologists, or a respected politician who is one of the worst bullies ever. I can assure you that no amount of touchy-feely recipes could have prevented you from being taken in by these sociopaths. So pay attention to your first impressions yes, but also don’t take things entirely for granted, and pay attention to any dissonance between what people say and their actions, I think that’s where your best chance of detecting the good liars comes in.

  15. Ruth says:

    Yes to all the comments, and I just want to add that I wasn’t saying that intuition is a female quality. I agree with Germaine Greer (who also wasn’t saying that it is truly connected with gender) that its appearance is connected with the necessary hypervigilance of the powerless (slaves were always said to have intuition too). And so of course men can have it and use it. Of course, those who have it, use it and become powerful are described in less “emotional” terms – far-sighted, savvy, smart, etc. It’s a good quality if it is used to good ends.

  16. Eric H says:

    TC is hardly a C-level engineer. More like first-class physicist (it was his boss that insisted on taking prospective engineers out to lunch to evaluate their salting habits).

  17. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:

    @Marie-Christine: Those instant flashes tend to work against me. I’m male, 35, very heavily pierced with obvious, non-hideable tattoos (not on my face *yet*); I’ve seen people cross the street in Chicago to avoid me. Heck, I seem to scare the gang members in my area, because not even the Latin Kings hassle me. On the other hand, the most trouble I’ve ever had with the law is traffic violations (note that having a broken muffler can cause a *lot* of problems if you fail to report that you’ve fixed it), I don’t use/sell drugs, I’m married, I have a BFA, I’m an Eagle Scout, blah blah blah. People that know me personally say that I’m nice, helpful, etc., but people seeing me for the first time tend to make flawed assumption based on my appearance. Preconceptions + intuition =/= accurate perception in all cases. I wonder how many job interviews I’ve blown based on my appearance alone?

  18. Sue Rock says:

    Not really sure how to express how much I appreciate your consideration, integrity and hard work – this post speaks VOLUMES!!!!

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