As humans, we have instinctive responses to the world around us. Instinct describes the way people and animals naturally react and behave. These instinctive responses are automatic, and don’t require us to think or intentionally learn from experiences.

At work, we may face all kinds of stressors, like colleagues shouting or people insulting us. Sometimes we serve people who behave unpredictably. Other times we may brace ourselves to receive feedback on our performance.

We might not realize it, but stressful encounters land in the body and can unplug the rational thinking brain.

We all have nervous systems that are wired to instinctively protect us. We might think of them as our personal security systems. They are constantly scanning for safety and danger, typically outside our awareness.

Our nervous systems react automatically to our environment, so we can either connect with others or protect ourselves. When our nervous systems recognize safety, we seek connection. On the other hand, when our nervous systems detect a potential threat, we protect ourselves.

To understand these instinctive responses, think about what happens when you walk into a social gathering of strangers. Who do you move toward? Who do you turn away from or avoid? Our instincts automatically guide us in these situations.

At work, we may not have the option to follow our instincts in the same way. We often have to engage with people even when we don’t feel comfortable, and our instincts seek to protect us. This can be stressful and tiring.

What if we were able to train ourselves to listen to and work with our instinctive responses?

When we have a better understanding of our instinctive responses and how to work with them, we are more effective in handling these kinds of incidents in a good way. We can also ease the impact of these events on our bodies. It’s possible to put a stressful day behind us, without a headache, stomach-ache or other types of physical strain.

To better understand how to work with our instincts, let’s unpack two distinct ways that humans learn: Explicit memory and intentional learning vs. implicit memory and instinctive knowing.

Explicit memory and intentional learning

A person riding his bike in the woods pauses to read a map.

Explicit memory and intentional learning is often the most common way we are taught. Every day we digest and remember facts, data, patterns and stories. For example, when learning how to deal with conflict, we might learn lists of phrases to help us respond. We may learn why a specific sequence is important when it comes to dealing with stressful situations and conflict.

We may also learn the critical art of listening and empathy. When reviewing what we’ve learned, we often have the sense of trying to remember a sequence, rationale or explanation. This explicit memory is verbal, narrative and conscious. Once we understand and digest the material, we can put it into words.

Our intentional efforts to learn and to remember may take repetition, effort and time – for example, with complex workplace policies and procedures, or navigating an unfamiliar roadmap. Knowledge gained through explicit memory and learning can fade quickly, especially for skills we don’t use regularly. The problem is, if this is the only way we learn the material, then when a stressful incident happens and our instincts kick in, the information we learned through explicit memory is often lost to us.

Learning by rote doesn’t help us in moments when our instincts unplug the thinking and reasoning brain. To work with our instincts, we need to learn to work with our bodies too – which takes a different type of learning and memory.

Implicit memory and instinctive knowing

Two smiling people ride bicycles down the street.

Implicit memory and instinctive knowing refers to knowledge that is not readily available to our conscious minds. Examples of implicit memory are the nostalgic smell of home cooking, or being transported to another time when we hear a favourite song playing. These are nonverbal aspects of our experience that feel like a part of us more than they feel like memories – or things we’ve intentionally learned.

This is the realm of implicit memory or instinctive knowing, which may be difficult to put into words – but not impossible, with training and practice. Implicit memory is emotional and linked to our own individual perceptions and life experiences. It often drives our behaviour, usually outside our awareness.

There is a strong somatic component to implicit memory, which means it’s physical and located in the body. These are things we ‘know in our gut’ and feel viscerally, but can’t readily describe. For example, once we know how to ride a bicycle, we simply get on and ride. We may or may not recall the explicit memory of being taught how to ride, but each time we get on the bike, our riding becomes automatic. This is implicit memory.

Our fingers on a keyboard move without us explicitly remembering each time where the letters are. Unlike explicit memory, when we learn things implicitly, we automatically retrieve the instinctive knowing without trying to remember how to do it.

Think about buttoning a shirt, playing a musical instrument, or driving a car. Once learned, these actions become second nature.

When it comes to implicit memories related to danger, our instinctive knowing can be imprinted with a single event.

Why study our own instincts?

An orange traffic light in the shape of a bicycle is lit, while people walk in the background.

When our nervous system even suspects that our boundaries and safety are challenged or threatened, our instincts kick in. Think back to those workplace stressors like shouting, insults, unpredictable behaviour, and bracing for a performance review.

Even when situations like performance reviews don’t pose actual physical danger, we still have automatic physical responses.

Our stomachs or jaws might clench. Our necks may tighten, or our hands may tremble. When they’re subtle, these signals go unnoticed but they still influence our behaviour. Sometimes they’re not so subtle, and we can’t ignore them.

To understand the influence of implicit memory on our actions, consider this: Have you ever blurted out something you soon regretted? Have you felt paralyzed or speechless in a moment when action was called for?

Although all human nervous systems operate in similar ways, every person’s instinctive nervous system is unique. Our nervous systems respond to stressors based on what each person has lived. For one person, a raised male voice might indicate anger or even danger. For another person, this same tone and volume might be a sign of enthusiastic storytelling.

Safety and threat are both determined individually, in each person’s own nervous system. The greater the perceived danger, the more likely we are to respond instinctively and automatically for our own protection.

Being in tune with our own instincts helps us feel better and do better.

A green traffic light in the shape of a bicycle is lit, while people walk in the background.
By learning about our instincts and practicing working with them, we can learn to act effectively and feel more comfortable right in the moment – while also meeting the requirements of engaging with the people in our workplaces. We can also lessen the impact these encounters have on our bodies, so we don’t leave work feeling worn out. If we do get to the point of burnout, we can also work with our instincts to recover.

Shayna supports groups of coworkers through training and consulting and also offers one-to-one coaching to help everyone work with their instincts and improve resilience.