Start with Intentions

All communication starts with an intention, whether we know it or not. Being aware and deliberately setting our intention improves our interactions with others.  

Imagine this: you walk into the office and your coworker stops you on the way to your desk to tell you a funny story about a client interaction. Instead of laughing, you brush them off and hurry to your desk. Most likely your intention was not to hurt the feelings of your coworker. More likely your intention was to quickly get to work and respond to urgent deadlines. The intention was subconscious, not deliberate. If it was deliberate, right when you saw your coworker you may have said, “Hey I’m up against a deadline, can we chat later today?” This simple example shows the benefit of being aware and deliberate about our intentions.

It only takes a second.

Setting intentions is not like setting goals. We don’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out exactly what we are trying to achieve. We just need to pause, turn inward for a moment, and notice. We can ask ourselves the question, “What are my intentions here?“ and trust whatever arises as the answer. All of this can happen in just one moment.

We have relationship and content intentions.

In communication we have intentions around relationships with others and around content. In our individualistic American culture we tend focus more on the content than on the relationship elements of communication.  An example of content intention is getting others to understand information we are sharing so that we can reach a project goal. An example of a relationship intention is to make others feel respected so that every member of a team contributes to a project. In a meeting, these two different types of intentions will lead to different styles of communication. If we have the ‘others feel respected’ intention, we will not talk very much and most of our speech will be confirming language in response to what others are saying. If our intention is to have others understand the information we are sharing, we will likely talk more and periodically pause to ensure understanding.

Balance is Required.

In many circumstances, conflicting intentions exist and we need to find a balance. I see this often with clients during media training. The spokesperson has the intention to ensure the reporter understands key messages, and also has the intention to make a personal connection with them to build a relationship.  In this case, spokespeople need to balance their content and relationship intentions. I recommend dealing with this dichotomy of intentions by kicking off the interview with a concise preview of key messages and then letting the conversation flow, asking questions of the reporter as much as answering questions with evidence and stories.

There is danger in subconscious intentions.

Sometimes we get ourselves in trouble when we are not aware of our intentions. Because intentions drive our communication style, without awareness we can offend others and hinder our interactions. One creative way to avoid this danger is to write our own ‘User Guide’ that makes our overall intentions explicitly clear to others.  I read about this idea from Jay Desai, CEO of PatientPing, a First Round Capital portfolio company. Desai has seen “ . . . too many immensely talented and productive teams stall because of a subtle misunderstanding of how to best work with each other.” The ‘User Guide’ specifies exactly how we operate and when we might malfunction in order to mitigate the danger of miscommunication. In Desai’s example, preferred methods of communication are ranked, priorities of time spent together with him are set, and implicit biases are stated. This candid written communication can help optimize our working relationships with others by informing them of our general intentions. Creating a ‘User Guide’ does not preclude the need for us to be aware of our intentions at the beginning of every interaction.

Start at the very beginning.  

As Julie Andrews sings in the Sound of Music, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’. We will communicate more effectively if we start at the very beginning and deliberately set our intentions the moment before interacting with others.