Have you ever taken a decision that you knew you had to take but didn’t feel right? Like everyone is telling you should apply to the manager role in your team, but something is blocking you. Or have you ever received the advice to follow your gut or listen to your heart? But how do you do that? Everyone experiences this for a good reason: we are a balance of different inner guides that we’re not always aware of, but who play a crucial part in our lives. Some people call them:

Our 3 brains

Your head

The head is the rational brain. It looks at problems in a logical way. With the head we list the pros and cons, we assess the strengths versus the weaknesses, and we measure the risks and the return on investment. We analyse and organise data to facilitate our decision making. The head says “I should” and “I shouldn’t” based on the facts it gathered.

Your heart

The heart is the emotional brain. It is spontaneous, and it sees problems through passion, feelings, and creativity. It says “I want” or “I don’t want”. Following your heart feels good in the short-term as it responds to emotions that are in the present.

Your gut

The gut is the intuitive brain. It sends us implicit and unclear messages about what’s going on. It’s the little voice that tells us something is right or wrong without telling us why. It is not conscious like the head or the heart. Intuition is the process that allows us to know something without reasoning, whether that something is an action to take or the understanding of a situation. That’s why it’s less tangible and obvious.

The danger of ignoring one of them

If you a rational thinker and tend to set your emotions aside when taking a decision, you are suppressing an important part of yourself (whether you like or not!). On the other hand, if you take decisions solely on an emotional basis and do not connect to your rational thinking, you are – sorry for saying this – likely acting like a toddler. Because the gut sends such cryptic messages and that we could always be wrong, it’s a lot harder to listen to it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When you align your head, your heart and your gut, you avoid internal conflicts which in psychology is called “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is characterized by the state of having ideas, beliefs, or behaviors contradict each other. Who hasn’t experienced this? Internal conflicts rise when you face opposing demands, needs, choices, ethics, morals. You feel the discomfort, usually in your chest (heart), in your stomach (gut), and you try to avoid thinking about (head).

Let’s play a quick game now.

Give yourself the task of not thinking about a white bear.

Focus on not thinking about that white bear.

There, it’s now impossible not to think about a white bear.

The white bear problem is the process whereby trying to suppress thoughts or emotions makes them more likely to surface. Ignoring and avoiding inner conflict is the best way to let this inner conflict surface and grow bigger, creating even more discomfort. Inner conflict often originates with “should” or “shouldn’t” (head), while the heart says the opposite and the gut is probably sending mixed messages we don’t know how to read. As a result, you get increasingly disconnected from your authentic self and it comes harder to take a decision that you are fully convinced with. Checking in our three brains before acting on something allows us to sense if they are all saying the same thing.

This activity is a practice to build over time. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more you’ll listen to and trust your gut. By repeating this exercise, you will build an understanding of every situation that is:

  • Tapping in the emotions to stay true to who you are,
  • Guided by facts and rational thinking,
  • Sensing if this feels right or not.

It is the best way to cover the spectrum of signals our body is sending us. All of them matter, none of them are wrong or right. It’s a balance you need to find again every time you face a decision.

How to listen to each brain

To successfully listen to the head, the heart and the gut, it requires focus and awareness from you. It’s not innate, it comes with dedication and practice. If you want to improve this part, you need to choose to work on it and follow the steps below.

1. Pause what you do, physically and mentally

Whether you are experienced in meditation or it is the first time, it’s essential that you do it with your entire consciousness. For this meditative activity to work, you need to do it during a moment where you can be fully present, the most present you could ever be. Pausing what you do and limiting your movements (by sitting or lying down still, for instance) are crucial to give you the space to focus.

2. Find a spot where you can focus without being interrupted

Talking about focus, choosing the right moment and time is key. People who are experienced with meditation can meditate anywhere – with noise, movement or people around them. They practiced their focus so much that they can’t be distracted. If you are new to meditation, the best place to start is a place where you won’t be interrupted by anyone or anything. If you are in the office, pick a quite room that you can close. If you are at home, choose a time where the level of noise is the minimum.

3. Take a few deep breaths

The best way to center yourself will always be to take a few deep breaths. This literally applies to every situation in life where you need to gather your thoughts, calm your emotions, come back to the present. Take a few deeps breaths: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat until you feel focused. Closing your eyes is a good idea at this point, but you can leave them open if you prefer.

4. Bring your awareness to your head

Once you are centered, think about the decision, the choice that is or will be in front of you. Then bring your focus to your head. Like I said above, the head is the rational, objective brain. In this very moment, forget about emotions and intuition. Just think about the facts. What are the facts? What are the pros and cons? What will change? What’s the best that can happen? What’s the worse that can happen?

5. Drop your awareness to your heart

Once you have gone through the facts, drop your focus to your heart. A good way to do it is to place a hand on your chest. Here you will focus on the emotional, subjective side of the situation. When you think about your heart, what does it tell you? What do you feel in your chest? How are the different options you’re hesitating with in line or in conflict with what’s important to you? Look for the reasons behind these feelings.

6. Drop again your awareness to your gut

Move your hand to your stomach, where your gut is. This is the most difficult brain to listen to, because it’s about intuition. Here, start by connecting your rational and your emotional thoughts, as you previously went through them separately. What is your emotional response telling you about the facts? What will it take you to compromise what you consider important to avoid risks? What’s the best thing that could happen? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Will you regret the decision? How will you look back to this moment and what will you think?

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions.

7. Look for any other physical sign and bring your awareness there

There are other places in our body that can store the discomfort we are feeling. For instance, I always feel an internal conflict at the top of my throat, where the larynx is located. It’s like a knot that’s taking a lot of space and that won’t go away. Some of my coaching clients feel it in their jaws that get very hard and tense. Others have a headache always in the same spot. Others have a stiff neck or shoulders, or a pain in their back. Knowing where yours is located is important, because you’ll be able to notice when it first happens and explore what makes it appear. You’ll also be able to focus your awareness on this area the same way you do with the head, the heart and the gut.