spring cleaning | content + intent
How many times a day do we ascribe a particular intent to someone else’s words or actions? Or have someone else make assumptions about the intent behind our words or actions?
“It’s the thought that counts.” If you haven’t said it, you’ve doubtless heard it.
We use that sentence to dismiss the form of an action when we want to believe the intent of it was positive.
Is that a bad thing? No—and it’s also an assumption.
And as I’ve heard my kids say, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” (Think about it: ass-u-me. And yes: “me” is grammatically correct; “I” is incorrect.)
cleaning up our relationships
I’ve just finished April’s Spring Cleaning program, in which we talked about “detoxing”—our food choices, our personal/beauty care choices, and our home care choices. And we ended by talking about cleaning up our minds and our relationships as well.
I often introduce mental hygiene and relationships in the same breath because, when you think about it, our relationships really do take up a lot of our mental/emotional real estate—perhaps more than any other primary food.
Have you ever heard that you are most like the five people you spend the most time with? That factoid is often brought up when we’re discussing health goals. The idea being that if you want to make better food and lifestyle choices, then hang out more often with people who are making those choices already.
Here a few questions you might want to ask yourself as you go through your rolodex if you’re considering decluttering/downsizing your friend/relationship list or adding in some new friends:
- Are their values aligned with your own? (It’s fine if they’re not—and please see question #3, below.)
- Do these people lift you up or drag you down? (Does your heart beat faster with joy or anxiety—or even dread—when you see their name pop up on your caller id?)
- When you go to them with a problem, do they ask the right questions, really listen to your answers, then help you find your own way out of the swamp? Or do they immediately jump in and try to “fix” you or convert you to their point of view or value system?
These are great questions to help you figure out which relationships to invest your energy in—and which ones you can release.
but what if it’s a boss/supervisor/colleague?
There are a lot of toxic relationships that we may not be able to delete from our rolodex. If that’s the case, then detox is probably your best option.
What does that look like?
From my experience, the most effective way to clean up a relationship is to take a look at content vs. intent.
Remember what happens when you ass-u-me? One of the primary ways we get into relationship trouble is when we assume we know another person’s intent rather than taking the content of their words/actions at face value.
And I have two favorite tools to introduce to help you do that!
the work of byron katie
Besides having one of the coolest URL’s ever (thework.com), Byron Katie’s The Work is a crash course on how to separate content from intent. It’s more relevant to personal relationships—and it is completely effective in a professional setting as well.
I highly recommend Katie’s book and a deeper dive into her worksheet, which is available online for free. I’m going to simply introduce a part of it, which demonstrates the point I’m making about content vs. intent.
Katie suggests that we write out a statement about the person’s behavior that we find bothersome. Something like, “My husband leaves the breakfast dishes in the sink when he knows that I need to start dinner the minute I walk in the house after work.”
Next, reduce that sentence by removing everything after “when he knows….”
What are you left with? “My husband leaves the breakfast dishes in the sink.” That’s the content minus any intent that you projected onto it.
Try it out on the following sentences:
- My boss doesn’t promote me when she knows that I have done exceptional work on this team for years.
- Our supervisor asked me to work this weekend when he knows that my son has soccer games on Saturdays.
- Those colleagues are always inviting me to go to lunch with them when they know I don’t have the money to eat out.
the ladder of inference
There’s a coaching tool called “the ladder of inference” which does much the same thing: removes intent and looks at content.
If you want to explore it further, check out this explanation (with example!) As with Byron Katie’s work, I’m going to just focus on one small part of the exercise.
The premise of the ladder of inference is that we all make decisions/reach conclusions based on assumptions that are formed by our experiences. And we scamper up that ladder extremely quickly and without realizing we’re doing it. (The brain is lazy, after all: easier to see a situation as similar to than to identify how it differs from another.)
The bottom rung of the ladder is “reality;” the second one is “selected reality.” Meaning that we pick and choose what we see/hear in any situation based on our personal experiences and beliefs and unconscious biases.
The best explanation I’ve heard about how to perceive more of “reality” (content) with less of a filter (assumed intent) is to watch a videotape of the situation on mute or to listen to an audio version of the situation without the visual. (You do have to leave out body language in the first and tone in the second for this to really work.)
You can see how this would get you to the same conclusion as Katie’s The Work:
- My boss did not promote me.
- Our supervisor asked me to work this weekend.
- My colleagues invited me to join them for lunch.
And yes, I want you to read/say those without making faces or implying how you feel by your tone of voice.
content + intent
If you can dig your way down to the content and remove the intent, you’ll find that you can then imagine many reasons (some positive!) that this person said something or acted a certain way. It’s like what I tell clients about judgment vs. curiosity.
- When you’re adding (usually malevolent) intent to the equation, your body reacts with a stress response. You won’t be able to think of any other options when you’re busy fighting or fleeing or freezing.
- If you look solely at the content and remove the intent/emotion part of the equation, your mind isn’t occupied with survival and can consider other options.
- My boss may not be promoting me because she knows I can’t put in more hours.
- Our supervisor asked me to work this weekend because he is going out of town and I’m the only one he can trust.
- My colleagues invited me to go to lunch because they don’t know my financial situation.
Let’s be honest: we don’t often explain why we are doing/saying something. And yet we regularly assume that we know why others are doing/saying something when we really don’t know anyone’s mind/intent other than our own.
it cuts both ways
So the flip side of this exercise is to be very clear in our own communications:
- I recognize how much work you’ve done and done exceptionally well. I’d like to offer you this promotion. And I know that family is your #1 priority, so the hours might not work for you.
- I’m going out of town, and I know that your son has a game this Saturday. You’re the only one I really trust to do this work, so I’m asking you to make an exception. Can you work this weekend?
- We really enjoy your company, and we’d love to get to know you better! Would you like to join us for lunch?
make the connection
Relationships are really all about communications, and when you improve communications, you improve relationships. Spend some time observing your communications this week—both incoming and outgoing. Can you take the emotional charge out of difficult situations by focusing on content rather than assuming you know the intent?