Empathic Intelligence In Practice

Intuition and Instinct in Teens

Part II of my series on teaching Empathic Intelligence to teenagers.

Intelligence is more than intellect

The educational system is focused on developing the intellect. The intellect is viewed as being located in the brain, experienced as the thoughts we have in our head, and demonstrated through writing and test taking. My work is to expand this limited view by introducing new practices that create richer and more satisfying learning experiences, and result in original insights, innovative problem solving, and lasting knowledge.

In the healthiest of educational environments, creative expression, relational intelligence and social and emotional learning are also valued. But while every educator will tell you that these “soft skills” are crucial, the larger system still considers them secondary to traditional academics. This viewpoint is only able to stand because we have separated out intellect and dismissed the other ways of knowing that come naturally to humans: instinct and intuition.

However, when we include instinct and intuition, something incredible happens: creativity, emotional intelligence, intellect, intuition and instinct all flow together in a positive web of interactions, where each nourishes and is nourished by the other. This enables a more sophisticated and inclusive intelligence – our Expanded Knowing.

How instinct and intuition are currently viewed in education

Instinct, if considered at all, is described biologically. We learn that it is ruled by the “reptilian brain” – the oldest part of our brain. Instincts show up during emergencies, such as pulling your hand from a hot stove, or running the flight/fight/freeze mechanism. But the most important message seems to be that we have evolved past this lower way of relating to the world. My experience, however, is that instinct is a source of invaluable flashes of insight that, when followed, can reveal subtle, unseen dynamics in a system.

While instinct is described in ways that would suggest it is well understood and of minimal use in the modern age, intuition, is seen as intangible and unreliable. One might hear an educator ask “what does your gut tell you?” or “what does your heart say?” but they could just as easily be asking, “what is your guess?” We lack precision in understanding what intuition is and how it can be used as a reliable means of making sense of the world. However, when we understand how intuition is received, we can easily create conditions that allows us to access it reliably.

The skill of Representative Perception

I have had the opportunity to work with children and teenagers from ages 6 – 19. The general practice that I teach involves physically standing up and representing a part of a system, and then describing what it feels like to represent that part. (With children younger than 10, I use toys instead of standing and representing. I’ll describe that in another post.)

This skill is referred to as representative perception or systems sensing, terms that I use interchangeably. I learned it as part of a therapeutic practice called Family Constellations, and it is very similar to techniques described by Otto Scharmer of MIT in his book Theory U and the practice he calls presencing. For my part, I have been actively applying this technique as a pedagogical tool since 2015.

While the process feels foreign to a student at first, it takes only a few rounds of representing before a person feels confident that they are having noticeably different experiences each time they represent something new.

Instinct and intuition in representative perception

One consistent and surprising finding is that younger teens often react in ways that are consistent with what one would expect for their representation – but they can’t explain why. For example, the person representing “Little Red Riding Hood” may instinctively move away from the person representing “The Wolf” – even when they don’t know which characters are being represented. When asked to describe what they noticed during the game, they might say: “I wanted to move over here. I don’t know why.”

However, other, usually older teens have a clearer sense of what they feel their motivations are. “I had a very strong feeling – like I wanted to get away from them.”

What I believe I am witnessing is the difference between instinct and intuition. Instinct is a pre-verbal and instantaneous reaction. We are moved by it, and our thinking brain doesn’t have to be involved. The reason for our instinctive reaction may only become clear after we receive additional information about the system.

In contrast, intuition can be interpreted through language – it just takes some time for the student to find the words to match their experience. I often see the young person silently engaged in an inner experience and then searching for the words to describe what they’re feeling. Generally, intuition arrives more slowly than instinct, and the interpretation of the experience comes as a dawning, a growing understanding.

Applying these insights

… will be the topic of my next post! For now, my hope is that these words provide some clues about how instinct and intuition are operating in you. The first step in being able to work from your expanded knowing is to recognize that you have it!

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