Gut Smarts - THE STORIES OUR BODIES TELL - Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett

Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)


Chapter 3. Gut Smarts

“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”


When I ask someone who is about to present where he or she feels the nervousness, almost invariably the person will answer, “In my gut.” “Butterflies” is a common description of the fluttery sensation that shimmies around the abdomen. It can make one feel nauseous, tight, restless. The diaphragm tenses, preventing the lungs from expanding fully, and this results in short, choppy chest-breathing. Those symptoms can cascade from there to sweaty palms, shaky legs, light-headedness. In general, however, it all begins in the gut.

Gut instinct. Gut smarts. The gut knows, often before conscious realization, whether or not someone is trustworthy, whether a situation is safe or fraught with danger, and it tells us so with distinct sensations immediately. Add to this the concept of “having guts.” To what does that refer? Is it to face danger with courage? To take risks that cannot be guaranteed successful? To speak up or, conversely, to remain silent? All of these can be true, and the person who “has guts” may exhibit them in one situation but be completely inhibited in another. Everything is situational. Irrespective of the circumstance and whether or not one takes action, the gut still knows. It tells us what we can and cannot tolerate. The question is, do we listen?

When I was an actress, I had a part-time job working for a small PR agent. By the end of my first day, I knew he was not a nice or honorable person, but I needed the work. I lasted with his firm for about three months, but it wasn’t until I quit that I actually felt what my gut had been holding back. To this day, I can recall getting off the elevator and entering the office the morning after I’d quit. (I had to return for two days to finish out the week.) My stomach was no longer gripped with fear and tension. Indeed the stomachache, which I’d repressed for the previous three months, was gone. But what was shocking to me was that only by feeling its absence did I become aware of how unconsciously I’d buried my gut smarts the whole time I’d been employed by him. Unbeknown to myself, I’d tuned out my own chronic stomachache to survive within a toxic environment.

Gut sense, or intuition, can be defined as a combination of two kinds of intelligence: knowing, which is the result of expertise, and sensing, which derives from feeling. The first is characterized by a doctor who makes a diagnosis, seemingly from the gut, but in truth based on years of accumulated data and experience. The doctor has seen previous patients with the same symptoms, studied similar lab reports, and kept up on the most recent studies and research. The diagnosis is still in the “hunch” stage, but it is deeply informed. “Sensing” intuition is more like looking down a dark street late at night and thinking, “Nah, it looks a bit sketchy. I won’t take the shortcut tonight.” On what is that decision based? Sounds, darkness, the body sensing danger, which may or may not be there, but once the body is on alert, it’s almost impossible to ignore. Historically, knowing and sensing were considered polar opposites, with the former considered the superior form of decision making as it was based on reason. More recently, they are being understood as parallel systems of decision making that work in tandem.

The gut is lightning fast, it’s visceral, and it provides a snap judgment of a situation. It also tends toward hypothesis rather than certainty. The gut senses if an idea seems risky or ingenious, if a person seems genuine or phony. It’s important here to distinguish between emotions and intuitions. Emotions are not intuitions, though strong emotions can often be confused with gut feelings. The difference is that emotions shift and change. You wake up in a bad mood, see your kid smile, and suddenly you’re happy. Like candlelight, emotions flicker and shift with the breeze. But gut feelings stick. They are insistent. They won’t let go. They ping over and over in the brain. They may not, in the end, be correct, but they cannot be ignored.

Where it gets tricky is that many of our gut instincts are the result of stored emotional memories from different life experiences. Early, preconscious events set up alarm systems that are unique to each individual’s body. Conditioning begins as soon as we enter the world and continues throughout childhood. If you got food poisoning from a certain food when you were very young, chances are you’ll avoid that food from then on. Even as an adult, it will be almost impossible to ignore the internal warning—Danger! Danger!—despite the knowledge that the poisoning was specific to one particular food item in one particular meal. This early warning system was designed for survival, and despite massive cognitive development over a lifetime of experience and learning, every new event is nonetheless measured against unconscious primary experiences. Additionally, our senses pick up cues before our thinking brain has the chance to analyze them. In milliseconds our instinctive, intuitive brain reacts, sending chemical signals to our body. So, for example, if a really big dog bit or even just snapped at you when you were two years old, chances are that as an adult, despite having had numerous encounters with nonaggressive dogs, your preconscious, instinctive reaction will nonetheless be one of fear. Conditioning, prior associations, traumatic events—these and more will color our gut reactions. Can we trust our gut that someone’s not trustworthy merely because he looks like a dishonest coworker from our past? Of course not. But we do. Why? Because if there is something about a person, event, or situation that triggers that early warning system, the body reacts before we are even aware of it: the heart rate jumps; breathing shallows; palms sweat. The body alerts us, and suddenly, without consciously knowing why, we feel endangered. Ask yourself, what are some of your early life experiences that still trigger your gut? Are they still in line with what you know now? This is where the analytical mind needs to step in, observe the gut sense, and work with it. In other words, you can trust your gut but only to a point. The challenge is knowing where to draw the line.

It’s essential to develop the self-understanding to question our own assumptions, to ask ourselves if our assessment is based in the reality of this moment or tied to a personal, historical association. The wiring for survival is smart and instantaneous but not particularly sophisticated. There was no time for sophisticated reasoning when a lion was attacking. But today, walking the corridors of the workplace, we’re not being attacked by lions (although that depends on where we work). Nonetheless, the fight-or-flight system can’t make the distinction between a literal lion, a metaphoric one, or even a loud noise. For our reactions to be most effective, we need to be able to differentiate emotions from gut intuitions. This is where I recommend checking back in with the body itself. If the belly tightens, there is valuable information being sent to the mind, but is it reliable? That tight belly may be indicative of antiquated, conditioned responses that are no longer in concert with the present. Or it may indeed be a valuable signal that needs to be attended. If the belly feels loose, happy, and eager, that too is valuable information. The dialogue between body and thought requires our attention and asks each of us to develop a refined language of description, definition, and awareness.

A common challenge is chronic, gut-churning distress when there is discord between one’s personal values and the values of the workplace. Often this can be further compounded by a contradiction between the stated values of the organization and the actual behaviors that are tolerated. An organization may say that it values people who speak up but, in fact, punishes or demoralizes those who do. For those who are expected to present a lot within such a contradictory culture, it is extremely taxing. Why? These are crazy-making situations, which go right to the gut. When misalignment or mixed messages collide with one’s personal values, the result is a sense of being off-balance. To stay employed, one may be compelled to bury one’s true self and manifest an expected persona. This conflict can impact the body in multiple ways, but most often, it’s experienced as tight, churning tension in the gut. To persist in such an environment, that tension must be endured or suppressed and can become so habitual that it’s no longer even sensed. (This is what my body did when I worked for the PR firm.) The tension resides inside the body as a dormant volcano, unpredictable and potentially quite disabling.

When threatened, we tend to clench the abdominal muscles to protect ourselves from assault. This is similar to the cowering of shoulders and neck mentioned earlier in the book. Given the endless, albeit nonthreatening, daily stresses that many currently endure, chronically tight bellies are to be expected. (When I say “nonthreatening,” I mean non-life threatening.) The fight-or-flight response in primordial times was triggered perhaps once every few days; now it is set off multiple times every day. When a booming jackhammer pounds through the day, we do everything possible to tune it out. But if we suppress the inner tightness of a chronically stress-triggered gut, we cut off the intuiting brilliance that resides there. Additionally, by living with constant stress and repressing our gut smarts to do so, we exhaust ourselves. This is not the exhaustion that’s the result of hard work; it is the exhaustion that comes from being in a state of conflict with oneself. Result? Alive but not vital! Here but not present. At work but not engaged. The energy that could be expended in so many creative and productive ways is directed to appease the war within. End result? Armies of the emotionally cutoff undead (and my personal theory about why zombie games and movies are so popular!). The smart gut evolved to protect us from danger. But overscheduled lives, tension, and chronic stress cut us off from our very own internal genius. All these factors profoundly influence our communication and impact our ability to effectively be in and manage the present moment.

All professionals spend years mastering their craft until it becomes intuitive. It seems ironic, but the goal is to so deeply integrate those skills that they become second nature and the pro can then be in the moment and go with his or her gut. In the theater, a consistent performance needs to be delivered night after night, but every actor knows that Saturday night’s audience will not be the same as Friday’s. How can a performance be consistent when every night and every audience is unique? The attuned actor adjusts moment by moment to the subtle audience shifts. When an audience laughs, the attuned actor senses when the laughter is peaking, holding off delivery of the next line for just the right amount of time to let the laugh finish but not die out completely. Some actors seem born with these intuitive skills, while others must train to attain them. But they are teachable.

In any professional communication, the audience—be it colleague, manager, or client—is as alive, unpredictable, and changing moment by moment as you are. To connect, in a discussion, a formal presentation, a group meeting, or a negotiation, it’s essential to pay acute attention to all the minute, rapidly shifting signals speeding by. Consider any business encounter as the actor does the audience. Why? Because life is essentially a never-ending, unpredictable improvisation. If you’ve gained the skills and expertise to navigate the unexpected, your gut will guide you on how to do so. But if for any number of reasons you’ve cut off your own belly smarts, that organic creative flow will be blocked, and what you’ll be left with are missed signals, ignored cues, lost opportunities.

Tension, whether chronic or due to sudden unexpected stress, removes us from the moment, cuts us off from our own self-awareness. If we refuse to let go of a predetermined idea of how an encounter should unfold, and it doesn’t, what happens? We are at loggerheads with the present. That conflict manifests as pushing without listening, arguing without honoring, judging without respecting. How often, watching people present, have you observed them cut off a questioner, interrupt a speaker due to refusing to let go of predetermined outcomes? Where does such behavior come from? What triggers it? Is its source physical, emotional, or psychological?

Tension is the result of an infinite number of influences, but one of its greatest triggers is time. We have an ancient, hardwired hormonal clock that is now in continual battle with the modern world. To assess our ability to accomplish all that we ask of ourselves, to understand how we experience time, we need to listen to our body clock. It is there, ticking away, sending vital, intuitive knowledge about how much we can handle and when to handle it. Chronic time stress affects our normal circadian rhythm. Small, occasional doses of stress hormones have been shown to be somewhat beneficial to thinking and performance. But endlessly high levels of adrenaline and cortisol can affect everything from weight gain to bone density. The gut knows what it can and cannot tolerate and for how long.

What do you do on a daily basis that pushes you beyond what your body naturally wants, needs, and tolerates? How does that impact your daily communication, and how you deliver information, how you listen? What body signals do you ignore due to your sense of time and busyness? Do you jam too much into an exchange or presentation? Do you speak at a pace that loses people? Do you interrupt people? Do you cut off speakers during meetings? Do you fidget while listening or speaking? How do these behaviors go beyond yourself and impact how you connect with those around you?

We need to relax into our bellies, and to do so often. By tuning in to habitual defense mechanisms, chronic stressors, and subconscious triggers, we can navigate the present moment far better. We need to remind ourselves to give up our “imagined” results of how an encounter, presentation, or communication should go and work to connect with this moment as it is. Quite literally, we need to breathe into the moment, not harden against it. Only then can we hope to find alignment when communicating. Alignment, by the way, is not necessarily agreement. We can disagree. It’s OK to have different opinions. They’re actually very important, as they enable learning and growth. But when we perceive disagreement as threat, we tighten the belly, withdraw, defend, or shut down. Letting go of belly tension is an amazing way to stop habitual patterns and to get back to finding points of connection.


This wonderful exercise allows one to let go of tension in the gut and, with practice, to flood oneself and others with compassion. It seems crazy, but it’s true. As you sit reading right now, let all the muscles in your abdomen completely relax; let them just melt into a loose puddle of softness. Don’t worry if you look fat! Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and simply let all the belly-holding go. The belly may attempt to grip. Don’t let it. Let it go and stay with it for a few breaths. Just experience how, by completely softening the belly, the feelings and emotions begin to bubble up. In general, the most profound emotion that comes to the surface is tenderness, a soft forgiving acceptance.

“Soft Belly” does not have to be done while you are alone. It is good to do during any high-stakes communication, stressful meeting, or negotiation. It does not make you weak. It makes you open, to yourself and your counterpart. As you encounter conflict with someone at work, instead of tightening the gut, train yourself to do the opposite. Let the belly go completely and experience what happens. It is counterintuitive, as it conflicts with the survival mechanism to tighten; but remember, a squabble with a colleague is not a lion attack. The ancient brain doesn’t know the difference, but a conscious self must learn to distinguish. “Soft Belly” practiced in the midst of a disagreement has the potential to quickly shift the dynamic from aggressive and defensive to calm and open.

During a formal presentation with interactive questions, the use of “Soft Belly” is an excellent way to defuse tension, to encourage better listening and less defensive answers to questions. Managing butterflies, a gripped gut, even nausea, when nervous about delivering a presentation, is a skill that can be learned. The techniques to do so must be practiced and embedded long before the event itself, so that they become routine. The best practices to counteract nerves are “Belly Breath,” “10-Second Breath,” and “Wet Dog Talking” (see Chapter 2). These, in combination with the tips listed below, can be tremendously effective in dealing with presentation nervousness that grips the gut.

By practicing both “Soft Belly” (above) and “Open Heart” (Chapter 2), you will experience subtle but quite distinct differences. Releasing and opening in each center creates different emotional responses. By frequently practicing one, or both, especially in the midst of stressful business communications, your body and thoughts will begin to respond in novel ways. By shifting focus from the subject at hand, the body instinctively takes a deep, cleansing breath. That breath acts as a needed pause, an interruption. It provides space for new thoughts and different, less habitual, responses.


Close your eyes and picture someone you would love to see—a beloved relative, an old friend—and imagine him or her sitting a few feet in front of you. Now go into your belly area with your mind’s eye and see what it feels like.

Now try it with someone you dislike and never wish to encounter. Put him or her a few feet in front of you and again feel what the belly says. The feeling may be subtle or acute; the goal is to be aware, pay deeper attention, and begin to notice what the gut says.


Think about an idea that you have for an exciting project at work. It may not even be part of your job description. Whatever it is, it should be something exciting that you look forward to accomplishing. Really imagine how you might fulfill this idea. If it’s a solution to a problem, imagine all the steps you might take. Jot them down. After a few moments, check in with your belly and see what it feels like.

Along with practicing “Soft Belly,” another excellent practice is to check in with the entire body at random times of the day for 10 to 15 seconds. This is slightly different from the body inventory of tension mentioned in the previous chapter, as it has different results.


Try to consciously feel what the brain tunes out: How do your feet feel in their shoes, your belt around your waist, the rings on your fingers? Our brain tunes out these constant physical sensations; otherwise it would be flooded with unnecessary information. Habituation is the term for this tuning out, but one problem is that we tune out so much else. The classic “Stop and smell the roses” I’ve modified to “Stop and sense the habituated.” (It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but you get the idea.) Can you sense your tongue in your mouth? Feel your heart beat? Become aware of blinking? Feel your kneecaps, your rear end? Can you go deeper and feel where there is joy or sadness or fear inside the body? How the self experiences emotions through the senses? How it sends those emotions through the body? Now focus specifically on your belly and determine what feelings are predominant in the center of your being.

Why do this? “Mindfulness meditation,” mental focus for 10 to 20 minutes a day on the breath or a mantra, repeatedly recommended by everyone from ordinary schoolteachers to gurus, is an almost impossible ask. Despite all the research on its benefits, most people simply cannot (or more likely, will not) find the time. Many don’t have the discipline to follow daily meditation practice. But the good news is that even brief targeted attempts at awareness done throughout the day can have profoundly beneficial effects. Aim for 5 to 10 mini-meditations of 30 seconds to a minute and a few breaths. Tune in to any of the habitually tuned-out areas of the body or just to the belly. Clients to whom I have recommended these exercises have reported many surprising and wonderful results. Below is one of my favorite e-mails from a client:

“It sounded crazy to me, but I began to try ‘soft belly’ in my weekly departmental meetings. It became clear almost immediately how much more patient I felt. Time didn’t feel so crunchy. So I taught it to my team. They thought I was crazy. But now, when things get tense, I’ll call a ‘time out for soft belly,’ and we give ourselves fifteen seconds of cooling off. Sometimes we just wind up laughing. If nothing else it’s been a great stress-buster. THANKS!!”

We do not yet understand fully all the systems that make the intuitive belly so smart. Biochemical, neurological, electrical, and even microbial influences are all contributors. (Yes, increasingly, we are learning that microbes may in fact be running the show!) Whatever makes the show go on, the gut knows a lot, and we would do well to take the time and deep breaths needed to listen.

Chapter 3: Gut Smarts

Review Exercises


✵ Soft Belly—relaxation, compassion

✵ Belly Imagine—emotion-body feedback loop

✵ Belly Feel—emotion-body feedback loop

✵ Tuning In to the Tuned Out—body awareness, relaxation, focus