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FREE BOOK CHAPTER: The No Nonsense Gut (From 'The No Nonsense Solicitors' Practice: A Guide To Running Your Firm' by Bettina Brueggemann)

25/07/17. Although I have not planned the chapters in any kind of order of priority (since I believe they are all equally important) I do find myself placing listening to your gut, or stomach, as I came to call it, top of my list of important lessons to learn when it comes not to just running your business but life in general.

And yet it is not something which in business we talk about much. I would suggest we should.

Listen to your stomach

Some call it emotional intelligence, gut instinct, subconscious or sixth sense. Scientists believe we have two brains – the head brain or conscious brain and the stomach (gut) brain. Research seems to suggest both operate completely separately and independently of each other and that the stomach brain is more powerful or effective. I cannot speak for science but what I did learn over the years was that the times I went wrong was when I failed to listen to my stomach.

Consider when you meet someone for the first time. You may think you assess them based on your conversation, what they say and how they look.

Observe yourself again next time. You might find yourself saying “they seemed quite nice but they are not quite my kind of person”, or “I really like them”. Your instinct is telling you something additional to your conscious observations.

Sometimes it reinforces your conscious observations leaving you happy and confident with your assessment. Other times it does not and can leave you confused about that “first impression” and the conflict you feel. There is nothing wrong with them, they were perfectly pleasant and yet...

As we are unable to explain the conflict we ignore it relying instead on what we can tangibly relate to, explain and therefore understand. We may simply say ”I didn’t like them because they said that”. The “that“ which they said is usually rarely grounds for not liking someone. However as we are unable to explain what we are thinking (and in reality feeling) we may end up simply saying – “I just wasn’t keen.”

I believe this is your gut instinct at work.

In business and particularly amongst lawyers we never talk about our gut instinct. In fact I think we are often embarrassed to admit that we have a gut instinct particularly if we are not able to explain what we are “feeling“ logically and rationally or, worse still for a lawyer and using legal language, at all.

As lawyers we don’t deal in feelings. We are trained to analyse and reach conclusions based on information, fact, evidence and our rational and logical analysis of that information and evidence. There is no room for gut instinct.

Our trademark as lawyers is our ability to analyse and think logically. How good we are as lawyers is assessed by how good our analytical and logical skills are. Why would we mention that we also have an instinct? Can you imagine standing up in court and saying “Your Honour my gut instinct in this case is that the defendant is lying and we should not therefore believe him”?

So lawyers ignore it and rarely mention it amongst themselves.

I recall the first time I referred to my stomach telling me something was not a good idea. I saw quizzical expressions pass over faces, polite smiles and immediately lost confidence in my “stomach” and speaking out. I also recall I felt very foolish and naive.

However as the years passed I learnt that whenever I failed to listen to my stomach I made a mistake or a poor decision. This was an important learning curve as the mistakes showed me that my stomach had been right.

Once I realised this and accepted it my gut instinct played a huge role in the decisions I made both professionally and personally. Strange as it may sound not only did it help with the here and now but at times it helped me anticipate what was going to happen in the future.

It may not always be clear but don’t ignore your gut

That is not to say that your gut makes it easy for you! Often you may have a feeling but it is hard to interpret it, understand what it is telling you and how you should act on it.

Although it will always be helpful in the end, it may not feel like it at the time. Bear in mind that your gut is talking for a reason – however unclear that might be. For me it became the trigger to take another hard look at the situation and the information available.

I recall being involved in the first interview of quite a senior lawyer. The interview went well. He seemed perfect for the role, had the right experience, seemed pleasant and a cultural fit. And yet something bothered me – a lot. Our HR manager had not picked up on anything and was enthusiastic.

I had no grounds for stopping the recruitment process and so he proceeded to second interview. Instead I asked those carrying out the second interview to “give him a hard time” and really drill down again into his experience, the kind of person he was and just generally. I recall that I kept stressing that they should give him a “hard time” even though I wasn’t clear myself what I meant by this. I suppose I wanted them to really check that everything sounded right.

He sailed through the second interview. Everyone was excited. We had been looking for someone like him for quite a long time. There were no grounds for not offering him the job – I was hardly going to persuade colleagues that my stomach had concerns which I could not identify or explain. Despite my confidence in my stomach I was not even sure I could persuade myself!

Our HR department followed the normal procedures for offering a job. However they quickly became concerned when the individual failed to confirm the date they had handed in their notice. Quite a small matter in itself but it was a standard check to help us know when they might roughly be likely to start with us. It also confirmed to us the individual was serious and would not be persuaded to stay where they were. It is not unheard of for candidates to use prospective employers as a bargaining tool for a pay rise from their current employer.

We asked three times but got no reply. Suspicions raised we pursued the question. It transpired that the applicant had already left their previous employment some months earlier. In principle nothing wrong with that either, except that they had not mentioned it at interview. Quite the opposite. They had given the very clear impression that they were still in employment and would need to give 3 months notice. On further investigation it transpired that they had been running a second business alongside their day job, using the firm’s contacts and doing work which the firm could have done or would have been interested in getting involved in. Unsurprisingly the firm took exception to this and had dismissed him. Not quite the kind of person we wanted to recruit either.

My gut instinct had been right. I thought back to the interview and it became clear to me what my stomach had picked up on. I was even able to visualise it. His eyes had flickered for a split second uncertainly when I asked what his notice period was. This split second of uncertainty was not someone trying to remember what their notice period was; it was a hesitation before telling a lie. The stomach had understood this whereas the brain had not. The brain had accepted the answer of 3 months notice at face value ­– the stomach had not.

Take time to reflect

On another occasion I was involved in the recruitment of a senior solicitor – this time for my own department. Again the applicant was highly experienced, had good references, seemed pleasant and intelligent and with good legal skills.

Litigators had been hard to find at the time and we felt we had struck lucky. An offer was made and accepted. Three days after the interview (by which time the offer had been made and accepted) my stomach did summersaults. I was extremely worried. I said to my colleagues that we had made a mistake. We looked at withdrawing the offer but that would not have been very professional and besides which I was unable to explain the reason for my concerns.

The person joined us. From day one they caused problems. It started with them being late on their first day. Never a good sign or start to a new relationship. It continued with them disappearing at noon and returning at 2pm – also on their first day. It was just my luck that the department head was on holiday at the time and it fell to me to deal with the “unusual” behaviour on their first day.

I was told by the employee that they had been looking at cars as they needed to get a new car and had not had time over the weekend. Further he excused his long lunch hour by saying that he did not know what time the firm’s lunch hour was – so presumably thought it was in order to take two hours.

Problems continued. As time went by clients complained, he lied about work he had done, deadlines were missed, timesheets were falsified – the list went on. On closer examination it transpired that the references we had received were agreed references and that he had been dismissed from most of his previous employments. In fact we were the last law firm he worked for.

I never understood what it was that I had picked up on or why it took 3 days for the stomach to tell me! It did teach me to listen and delay making offers for a short time. There is a reason why the saying goes “let’s sleep on it”. Allow the stomach or your subconscious time to work.

Some have a better instinct than others

That is not to say that everyone has a good gut instinct. I know many people who have a poor instinct. I do not know why that might be but having said that I doubt there is anyone who has no instinct at all. It is a basic animal skill which humans have not lost completely but is of course not as prevalent as with animals. I believe that through experience and a greater understanding of how it works it is possible to develop it.

Can you persuade others to rely on it? Why should they rely on your instinct particularly if theirs is saying something different?

That is a very fair question but remember this is not a contest. I have never tried to understand the instinct of others. You can’t. Equally do not assume that your instinct will pick up on everything. It will not and cannot. On that basis and if you find yourself disagreeing with a colleague about your “instincts” the chances are that neither of you are wrong. What is more likely to be the case is that you have picked up on different things. Listen to what you are both thinking and it might be that between you, you get a more rounded and complete picture of the situation.

Therefore, whether we accept it, consciously or subconsciously, your stomach, your gut instinct, your subconscious plays a part in the decisions you reach and how you act.

A great deal can still be logically analysed and rationalised with the brain. I do not seek to undervalue the conscious brain and its ability to assess situations. My point is do not ignore your gut instinct if it raises its head. Take time to rethink what you are planning to do. Reassess all the information you have and look again at everything more carefully. Keep at the back of your mind something might be afoot, not quite right or just not the right thing to do. Try to work out what it might be. There is a reason why your stomach is talking to you even if the message is unclear confusing or even seems stupid.

Look at your gut instinct as simply another tool you have that can help you make the best decisions. It is a complicated tool, it can take time to understand and sometimes you may not be able to. You can however learn from it. Above all don’t ignore it and allow it to play a part in your decision making process.

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