Consider the story.
Leonie: I resented the way you reacted in front of our friends at dinner.
Rachel: The way I reacted? What are you talking about?
Leonie: About the extra-toppings on my dessert. You acted like you are my mother or something. You have this need to control me or put me down.
Rachel: Leonie, I wasn’t trying to make you look bad. You said you were on a diet, and I’m just trying to remind you stick to it. You’re so defensive. You hear everything as negative even when I’m trying to help.
Leonie: Help? Humiliating me in front of my friends is your idea of helping?
Rachel: You know, I will never win with you. I am so tired of this. Sometime I wonder you do start these fights on purpose…
The conversation left both Leonie and Rachel both hurt, angry and misunderstood.
They are engaged in a classic battle of intentions.
Leonie accused Rachel of hurting her on purpose, and Rachel denies it. They are caught in a cycle they don’t understand and don’t know how to break.
The two crucial mistakes in this conversation make it infinitely more difficult than it needs to be – by both of them.
When Leonie says “You have this need to control me or put me down.” she is saying about Rachel’s intentions. Her mistake is to assume she knows what Rachel’s intentions are, when in fact she doesn’t. It’s an easy – and deliberating mistake to make. And we do it all the time without noticing it.
The second mistake is Rachel assuming that once she clarifies that her intentions were good, Leonie is no longer justified in being upset. She explains that she “wasn’t trying to make Leonie look bad,” and in fact she was trying to help.
Here’s the problem.
While we care deeply about other people’s intention toward us, we don’t actually know what their intentions are. We can’t. Other people’s intention exist only in their minds and hearts. They are oblivion to us. However real and right our assumptions about other people’s intentions may seem to us, they are often incomplete or just plain wrong. Here’s why:
- We Assume Intentions from the Impact on Us
- We Assume the Worst
- We Treat Ourselves More Charitably
One more thing. Getting other people intentions wrong can be costly. We usually assume bad intentions mean bad character. We go from “they have bad intentions” to “they are a bad person” in a whim. Accusing others of bad intentions creates defensiveness in us.
Here’s my learning in how to avoid the mistakes.
Disentangle Impact from Intent
Separating impact from intentions need you to be aware of the unconscious leap from “I was hurt” to “You intended to hurt me.” Below are three questions to help you:
- Actions: “What did the person actually say or do?”
- Impact: “What was the impact of this on me?”
- Assumptions: “Based on this impact, what assumption am I making about what the other person intended?”
“Once you have clearly answered these three questions, the next step is to make absolutely certain we recognize that your assumption about other people’s intentions are just as it is – assumption. It is a guess, a hypothesis.”
The next step is to share the impact it had on you and then inquire about their intentions. Saying something like
“I want you to know that the things you say and do have make me feel embarrassed.”
“I wonder you did say it on purpose to hurt me? I don’t know why you would want to do that?”
The conversation is only beginning, but it is off to a good start, usually.