The Gut Check Concept


“A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” ― Rosalynn Carter

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge two truths: One, we need relationships. Two, relationships are hard work.

Any human being who has ever known another is aware of the double-edged sword that is being in a relationship. Though beautiful and necessary to our survival, relationships are messy, confrontational, and even at times, painful.

So, how do we handle this complicated irony while moving forward into community with one another?

My suggestion, of which I cannot take credit, is to invoke the almighty “Gut Check Concept.”

I first learned of this concept seven years ago when my husband, Will, and I joined a team made up of two families; ours was the third. That added up to six adults, all of whom had the same goal but went about that goal in entirely different ways, coming from different backgrounds with massively varying personalities. Fortunately for Will and me, the team we joined already had several years of teamwork wisdom under their belt and filled us in on what it meant to have a team gut check which goes like this regularly:

Before the ‘business’ side of each team meeting is underway, we begin our time together by checking to see if anyone has something on their “gut” - feelings of frustration that need to be said to the team or a team member, a personal experience the rest of the team should know about, or a word of encouragement for either everyone in the room or one particular person. While Gut Checks don’t necessarily have to be confrontational or negative, it’s understood that, even if a person’s Gut Check is more on the negative side, those listening are prepared to accept the speaker’s words by practicing active listening and affirmation. The person speaking should know they are speaking in a safe place, so no matter the gut feelings spoken, the person should be able to speak with confidence.

Here is an example of how a gut check that requires healthy confrontation might sound:

Team Leader: Before we begin, does anyone have anything on their gut they’d like to talk about?

Gut Check Person (Nancy): Yes, I’ve got something I’d like to address that happened last Thursday. On that day, we had our program, and you probably remember that I showed up late without letting you all know, and I should have. I apologize for that and will do a much better job of communicating next time. I made a mistake, and that’s on me. But, Mark, I felt humiliated by the way you confronted me when I walked in. I understand your frustration with me, but I felt put down and shamed, especially because it happened in front of people who were our guests.

A few good moves are happening here. One, a safe environment has been created right away by the team leader. Two, the person who responded to the gut check, imaginary Nancy, began by addressing and owning her mistake. Three, Nancy affirmed the felt frustration by our imaginary friend Mark while also confronting him on the way he handled her lack of communication. Four, Nancy, again, owned her feelings by using “I” statements and clearly described how she felt by identifying what exactly caused feelings of shame and humiliation.

It’s now up to Mark to decide how he’s going to handle Nancy’s gut check. Ideally, he will choose to own his own mistakes concerning the way he talked to Nancy, as well as his feelings regarding how he felt when she showed up late. The end goal is to clear up any lingering negative feelings with empathy and compassion to move forward in communal and emotional health.

I’ve been involved in enough gut checks to know that they don’t always go smoothly. Tempers flare, feelings get hurt, words are said that shouldn’t have been. But even so, the hope is to catch up to the runaway train of emotions, get back in control, and steer it to safety before diving into the agenda for the day. We are emotional, messy beings who screw up. But we’re also emotional, messy beings who are capable of forgiving, listening to, and caring for each other. Whether it’s a team effort or two good friends, the ability to manage conflict is vital to the survival of relationships.

In my own life, both work and personal, I’ve made the Gut Check Concept part of most conversations, in case the person or persons with me needs to be invited to speak freely and safely. Sometimes relying on our confidence or the confidence of the other person to divulge feelings of negativity isn’t enough to get us to that place of courage. We often need the invitation to speak from our guts.

Conflict is hard. But managing it can be done if the right concepts are put into practice. Ask questions. Listen attentively. Own your stuff. And check your gut - frequently, and mindfully.

About the Author

Holly Kooi is co-founder of U!Shine Vienna and lives in Vienna with her husband and two kids. She is a certified Character Mentor, and her heart is with the refugees and those on the fringes of society. She's passionate about loving people well, writing, mental health, and good coffee. To connect with Holly, visit her blog or follow her on Instagram.