Chapter 15: What did you intend?
Communication can be scary and dangerous. We use lethal-sounding words like “landmine” and “trigger” to describe some unpleasant surprises you can stumble upon while communicating. Even in normal conversations about everyday subjects, we sometimes say things that seem totally innocuous to us, and we’re blindsided when the other person reacts with anger, hurt, or fear.
It’s no fun to be on the other end, either. There you are, having a pleasant conversation, when the person you’re talking with suddenly drops a bomb on you, saying something unimaginably hurtful, and then sits there with bug-eyed surprise when you express your hurt feelings! What’s going on here?
It’s easy to believe that we live in a single, shared, objective world, while in truth we each live in our own personal world of concepts. We each have a minefield of hangups, fears, and issues built on past hurts that cause emotional reactions when we encounter them. Sometimes we react by getting angry or by closing down. No matter how universal or obvious an issue seems to us, other people have different internal landscapes and, therefore, different minefields.
Similarly, we interpret things differently from how they were meant because if we had said them, we would have meant something else. That reason — the one we would have had — is the reason that makes sense to us, so we make the usual error. An issue that is a big deal to us may not be a big deal to someone else; they may have stepped on our landmine entirely by accident.
Here’s the simple solution we’ve found to this problem of mysterious mental minefields: the phrase “What did you intend?”
The key to using this phrase effectively is to be aware of the constant potential for the usual error. That’s what you’re doing by reading this book, so you’re on your way already. Then, whenever someone steps on one of your landmines, remember that you have a choice. One choice is to assume your interpretation of their intent is correct, make emotional conclusions, and get angry, upset, or hurt. A second choice is to ask, “What did you intend by that?” People generally like to talk about themselves, so they’ll likely give you an explanation of what’s happening in their inner world. Asking for clarification gives you both a second chance at successful communication!
People don’t usually intend to hurt others when communicating with them, so your strong negative reaction signals that something might have gone wrong in the communication process. You may have a different understanding of the words your partner chose, so you made an assumption about their intent. However, things are almost never as we assume them to be. (If our assumptions were always right, we wouldn’t need to communicate in the first place!)
Sometimes it doesn’t go so smoothly. Sometimes asking “What did you intend?” elicits defensiveness from your partner. You can almost see the mental backpedaling: “Oh, did I say something wrong? Why is she asking me that? I’m not actually sure what my intent was, so I’d better make something up fast!” If you can see your partner panic or get defensive about the question, explain why you’re asking. Say something like, “I don’t understand what you meant. What I heard hurt my feelings, but I don’t think you intended to hurt me so I probably misunderstood. Can you clarify what you meant?”
We’ve found that asking “What did you intend?” defuses potential conflicts successfully and makes life a lot less stressful.
That takes care of one side of the issue, but what about the cases where you trip over someone else’s landmine? In close relationships, where you and your partner are actively working to communicate better, you can simply share this information. If they like the idea, they can ask you, “What did you intend?” when you step on their landmines.
In other situations, where teaching communication skills isn’t seen as socially appropriate, you can take the above advice and use it in reverse. When you step on someone’s landmine, keep in mind that the person isn’t blowing up at you. They’re not freaking out about you, they’re not retreating from you. They’re reacting to an imaginary you. They’re reacting to the “you” in their head who makes the same assumptions they do. If you can remember that, you’ll remember that you are not green, and then you can explain your own intent and clear things up before they get out of hand.
Kyeli’s Story: Pace Humiliates Me in Front of Our Friends
One afternoon, Pace emailed me to let me know that she would be working late. We already had plans for that night, so I felt disappointed. I emailed the group of friends we were meeting to let them know that she wouldn’t be able to make it (including Pace so she could remain in the loop). I used negative, sarcastic expressions to vent my hurt feelings.
Pace replied to the entire group by going through my email, paragraph by paragraph, and rephrasing everything I said in a more positive manner. When I read her email, I felt humiliated, as if Pace were a school teacher who had called me out in front of the whole class. I felt hurt and embarrassed. I was also baffled as to why she would do such a thing to me.
I took a few deep breaths, held my emotions at bay, and waited until she came home. That night, I asked her, “What did you intend by rephrasing my email?” She said she tried to make light of the disappointing situation while showing our friends how excited we were about rephrasing things positively. The previous week, we’d met with the same friends to discuss rephrasing things positively and other communication-related concepts, so she wanted to show them an example of putting it into practice. I told her how I had felt humiliated. That surprised her, because that hadn’t been her intent at all. She apologized and hugged me. We discussed the intent behind each of our emails, and we agreed that next time we would do things differently. I felt better knowing her actual intent and she felt better knowing what my intent with the original email had been.
In a very real way, asking “What did you intend?” is a gift. It’s a gift to yourself, because it can save you from unnecessary pain and confusion. It’s a gift to others, because it helps them convey their meaning clearly and without misunderstanding. It’s even a gift to be asked, because sometimes we ourselves don’t know what we intended. Sometimes we run on autopilot or act based on unconscious issues. When someone asks for clarification about your intent, you might discover more about yourself, and that is an extra bonus gift!