What to do when your intention is misread.
You ask your reports if they can ship a project faster. You hope they will help you come up with ideas to trim down the feature set. They feel disheartened. They think you don’t trust them.
You tell a younger sibling that they should push themselves more. You want to motivate them - they have so much potential! They think, “I’ll never be good enough for her.”
You tell jokes constantly. You want your friends to think you’re funny - that it’s worth keeping you around. They get annoyed. They think you just want to be the center of attention.
We don’t intend to hurt others or ourselves by coming off as annoying or demanding. We do what we can to earn love, safety, trust, respect, peace.
But how often are our intentions misread or overlooked? How often do we hurt others with our sincere efforts to help them grow? How often do we annoy others with our subconscious efforts to make them like us?
Would you even want to know?
Ignorance may spare you momentary discontent, but when left unchecked, uncaught misalignments can fracture the trust between you and those around you.
When I first became a manager, I had the habit of asking my reports for help and then retracting the request right away.
Conversations went like this:
“Would someone mind helping me run the retrospective for project X tomorrow?”
*5 seconds of silence*
“Or, that’s okay, I can just do it myself.”
I needed the help, but I always talked myself out of it. I didn’t want to appear demanding. “Isn’t my job as a manager to unblock people? I shouldn’t give them more work! They don’t seem to be interested.”
One day, a report gave me feedback. She told me that whenever I took back a request, it gave her the impression that I didn’t trust the team to follow-through.
I was surprised - I didn’t realize how much I misread the situation.
Her feedback taught me two things:
First, people respond to our actions, not our thoughts. In other words, they respond to what they can perceive with their senses.
Second, we all view the world through unique lenses. The same action produces different interpretations and emotions in others.
Your thoughts and lenses are invisible to others. You may hint at your intentions through your actions, but in the absence of mind-reading, they will arrive at an interpretation that’s more a reflection of them than you.
Thankfully, we can reduce these misalignments by communicating, and bringing what’s inside, outside.
Share your intentions.
Think of how the first statement changes the meaning of the second statement.
Without intention: “Can you please take down your recent Twitter post about our conversation?”
With intention:“I want to wait longer before I share my new project with others. Can you please take down your recent Twitter post about our conversation?”
Without intention: “I looked at the code you pushed recently and found a few errors. Let’s talk about them.”
With intention: “I want to proactively give you feedback on ways you can improve and exceed performance expectations this quarter. I looked at the code you pushed recently and found a few errors. Let’s talk about them.”
By sharing your intention with your teammate, you’re lending them your lens. They may not agree with your actions, but with your perspective in mind, they can help you achieve the impact you want.
Give others permission to correct you.
Offer others the opportunity to share your intention and work with you to create the impact you want.
“I plan to actively lead the meeting because I want to make sure we have an answer by the end of it. Let me know if I’m over-directing or speaking over others, I want to make sure all ideas are heard.”
“This project is high priority for our team so I’m going to check-in if I’m unclear on the status. Let me know if you have a better way of communicating updates with me.”
Ask for feedback early.
Collect a few opinions before you share sensitive news or institute a major change. If you work with others, you have the benefit of their insight - use it!
“Here’s what I plan to share with the team in order to motivate them. Do you think it’s a good strategy?”
“I want to ask engineers to add cost estimates on their tasks so we can better plan for future projects. Do you have any ideas on how I can bring this up?”
Feel the feelings.
You can try to plan, prepare, and predict ways in which you can avoid pain, but you’ll eventually face the humbling realization that despite all the planning and preparation, you can’t predict everything. At some point, you’ll do something with good intentions that someone won’t like.
When a teammate tells you that you hurt them, you might feel sad, angry, or frustrated. It might feel like you’ve had spinach in your teeth all day and no one’s told you about it. “How long have people felt this way?!”
When this happens, try to feel the feelings. Say to yourself, “wow, this makes me feel really sad.” Try to locate the feeling in your body. Take a few breaths as you visualize it. What color is it? What shape? Visualizing your emotions will help anchor you to the present and keep you from replaying and ruminating on the past; the body only exists in the present.
If you need time to locate and process your emotions, ask your teammate if you can reconvene later. Give yourself time to understand their feedback and why it hurt you.
Finally, if you’re up for it, tell them how you feel. According to Brené Brown, empathy is the antidote to shame. By sharing how you feel, you’re allowing their empathy to heal your pain.
Your intention is true, its impact is true.
The impact of your actions does not nullify your intention.
Your teammate’s misinterpretation of your intention doesn’t make your intention any less true. You wanted to help, support, share, teach, protect. That matters.
In a similar vein, your intention doesn’t nullify what others perceive or how they feel.
Even if you didn’t intend to upset your teammate, you still might have. Your positive intention doesn’t make their feelings invalid or meaningless. Their feelings also matter.
Your intention and its perceived impact may appear to conflict, but as the parable about the blind men and the elephant suggests, they don’t. They’re both subjective experiences that comprise a greater truth.
When your teammate shares their truth, they’ve given you an opening to share yours. Tell them your original intention even after you’ve learned that they are upset or disappointed. Help them understand your subjective experience.
“I’m sad to hear that. I didn’t mean to be unprofessional. I wanted to lighten the mood.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to offend you. This is what I meant by it…”
It’s natural to point the arrow at yourself after learning that you’ve hurt someone. I’ve surrendered to my spiraling emotions many times, and thought, “What’s the point? Why should I share anything if this is how people take it? Why would I prepare so much for meetings if people don’t even want to hear from me?”
But before you dismiss your good intentions as worthless, try to remember all the positive outcomes they’ve created for you and others. How many times has your desire to help, to share, to work harder, made others’ lives easier?
Your intentions are not the problem - you and your teammates just don unique, hidden lenses. By communicating and trying to understand each other, you swap lenses and uncover more trust.
Continue to give, share, experiment, and connect with those around you. If your friends or teammates tell you that your actions negatively affected them, feel the emotions that come up, and thank them for offering you a new lens and a new truth.
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