Are you comfortable using intuition in your practice?

Social workers can be wary of acting on intuition but it's a valuable gift that makes the most of practice experience, says Andrew Whittaker

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By Andrew Whittaker, associate professor, London South Bank University

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”

Albert Einstein

In social work, it could be argued that intuition is a gift we are very wary of accepting. Once, when I spoke with social workers about intuition, a team manager asked: “Intuition – isn’t that all just a bit Mystic Meg?”

This response expresses some of the suspicion we commonly feel, but recent psychological models see intuition simply as a core feature of how our brains work.

What is intuition?

Intuition occurs when we draw upon our experience to recognise cues in a situation, spot patterns and build a narrative about what is going on. We are using intuitive thinking when we speak with a loved one on the phone and can tell their mood within a few seconds. Rather than being a mystical process, it is simply how our brains use our experience to inform our judgement.

Why is intuition important for social work?

We are constantly using all the available information we have to influence how we communicate with the people we work with, hypothesise about situations and make decisions. I’ve found through my own research observing frontline child protection practice that experienced practitioners can spot subtle cues and see patterns to have a better understanding of a case.

Can we develop our intuition as practitioners?

Intuition improves as we build a larger repertoire of experience to draw upon. In the research study, I spent several years observing frontline practitioners and there was a clear progression in their intuitive judgments.

When faced with a complex case, novice social workers tended to become overwhelmed trying to understand what was happening and were more likely to take things at face value. The more experienced practitioners became, the more they picked up on subtleties, with the most experienced able to read situations in a highly sophisticated way, using well-honed observation skills to get below the surface.

This is why organisations such as NASA that are extremely concerned with safety invest in keeping highly experienced staff on the front line.

Are there risks to using intuition?

Our intuition can sometimes send us off in wrong directions in ways that are unhelpful, however experienced we are. However, these errors are predictable so we can guard against them if we know what to look out for. The workshop will outline various heuristics and biases to help with this. Intuition is a valuable gift, but we need to learn how to use it wisely.

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