One of the most insidious of creatures haunting the castle that is your relationships is that of Assuming Intention. This is a more specific example of what the great hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson referred to as “mind reading”.
The gist is this, and don’t feel bad as you notice examples of your doing this, perhaps even today: Someone takes an action and you interpret an intent behind it. In criminal law, this is a an important distinction, and we suggest, it matters everywhere – whether or not someone intended what you believe they did.
A criminal example might be that a gunman shoots another person. It’s possible that the first person shooter planned the shooting for days, weeks, carefully selecting their weapon and method of attack. Until you know more, however, it’s also possible that the first person was cleaning their gun, and accidentally shot the second person. Another example the law recognizes is that the first person had the gun, ready to defend himself, and he and the other person wound up in an argument. In a rage, the first person draws and fires the weapon, killing the other person, though without premeditation. Further complicating this is that the two people may have had the argument, the second person noticed the gun in the other person’s belt, tried to take it away, and in the confusion, shot himself. In all these examples, the law concerns itself not only with what happened, but what each person intended. It can be the difference between a charge of manslaughter and first degree murder.
Isn’t your life as important as a criminal case you hear about on the news? We suggest that assuming intention is almost always dangerous business, especially when it’s happening to you.
A somewhat silly contrast illustrates the same point in the form of an old joke. Two psychologists pass in the hall and the first say, “Have a nice day!”. The other frowns and says to himself, “I wonder what he means by that…” It’s therefore possible to either over-analyze intention or to assume the worst, needlessly.
Consider a more likely example in your own life. Your coworker walks up to you and asks if you have completed your newest project, adding, “The boss is on a terror today…and looking for heads.”
Is your coworker taunting you, assuming that you are fearful or insecure in your position? Or does he have the highest regard for you and does not want you accidentally getting into the line of the boss’ fire? Are these the only two possibilities? Of course not! There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different intentions behind the warning. To assume an intention too innocuous may in fact lead us to not be on guard. However, as is more often the case in our own experience, to assume an intention too dire creates unnecessary, even debilitating stress and suspicion.
We often interpret such meanings, differentiating the likely intention, via context. Sometimes that’s the tone of voice, the facial expression and body language. Other times we just assume that we know what the other person means. It’s that area that concerns us today.
Intimate relationships are like fine thread. Some people associate them with chains, bonds of some sort, but we recommend that you not associate your relationship with anything you consider limiting or unpleasantly restraining. We like the metaphor of thread because as we sew two pieces of cloth together, each stitch creates more strength, more resilience. When we just begin, and have only completed a few stitches, the cloth is easily torn apart. But each subsequent stitch creates more durability, more ability to sustain the strains and challenges that life often introduces. Some couples pause their stitching at some point, decide that’s good enough, and leave it alone.
The fabric of the relationship may be as strong as it ever will become for them. Relationships in which the participants don’t bother to respect their fabric, so to speak, may very well tear at the stitches, pulling them out over time. They may find, after five or seven years together, that their fabric is only tenuously held together, hanging, as it were, by a thread. Relationships in which participants truly care about nurturing the relationship will continue to sew together for a lifetime, and each year, despite challenges and adversity, and repeated, shall we say, learning experiences, the fabric of their relationship is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times stronger than when they had first begun.
Can you see how your professional relationships can be equally affected? With customers? Coworkers? Bosses? Employees? Assuming a negative intention creates needless tension and can lead to conflict that is ultimately based on a misunderstanding.
One way we can assume intention in a positive manner is to assume good things from our partner. Our experience tells us that in a rewarding relationship, our partner is not likely trying to scare us, create stress, or unnerve us at all. So this is a more realistic assumption, at least, than assuming the worst. We can assume positive intentions from him or her, such that even an interpretation of meaning sews our fabric more securely. More often, however, we work with couples who carelessly cut or rip those threads as they assume a negative intention. Consider the following list. In the first category
You are up late at night working on an important project. Your partner brings you a cup of coffee.
Assumed negative intention (ANI): He or she is irritated that you are still up, but figures it’s a lost cause, you’re going to stay away from them so they may as well surrender. You hate it when they just don’t seem to understand how important this is!
Assumed positive intention (API): He or she would likely prefer you come to bed, but understands how important this project is to you, and perhaps to the whole family. They just want to show their support and love for you. You love feeling so appreciated and respected!
Consider another example. On a pleasant Saturday morning, you look out the window into the back yard. The grass should have been mowed a week ago and is now going to be a tremendous chore. You don’t relish it and truthfully would prefer to do something else. As you stare at the task ahead, your partner brings you your yard gloves.
ANI: Your partner expects you to get off your lazy butt and get to work! Doesn’t he or she know how tired you are from the week? Would it kill them to just let you begin your weekend slowly? You hate it when he or she is so insensitive to your needs!
API: Your partner recognizes your body language, knowing the yard has to be mowed. They wish dearly that it was not going to be such a chore, but can see from your actions that you are already recognizing the need to do it. They want to be as supportive as they can, and bring you your gloves. You love feeling so understood and supported!
The most significant aspect to all this is that, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the assumed intention sets a direction for your reaction. Your partner, or coworker, or anyone else for that matter, has just performed an action. You can assume the worst, the best, or any place in between, but the question isn’t even which is the most accurate. It’s which will be the most helpful. You now must react in some fashion. As you do so, what will your frame of mind be? That part is always up to you, by the way, and the trick is to choose a frame that will support whatever outcome you want. Will assuming that the other person hates you and just was looking for a great way to zing you help you or hurt you? Will it assist you in reaching your outcome or impede you? When it comes to intimate relationships, assuming a positive intention is nearly always useful. The alternative also holds true nearly all the time – to assume a negative intention is nearly always harmful.
Play with this a bit this week and consider the possible APIs versus ANIs you could find in your partner’s actions. Then consider what outcome is most likely as you select one over the other. Remember, you’re not trying to determine which intention is correct. You are only striving to determine the likely outcome of assuming an intention. “If I assume (s)he is trying to insult me and kick me into gear, how will I feel and how will I likely respond? Moreover, how will my partner likely respond to that reaction?” We caution you about that because too often when couples assume their partner’s intention, we get caught up in proving ourselves right, whatever that assumption was. That’s about the most unuseful thing you can do, and you want to focus instead on what will help you reach a desired outcome instead of a less desirable one.
We’ll explore this further in future articles. Have fun, and let’s come back and explore how this can help make all your relationships better, more fulfilling, and happier.