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Curiosity About Intent is the Key to Better Relationships

curious about intent

It’s time to stop assuming and start getting curious about people’s actions. 

 If you’ve been reading our work for any time, you may have noticed we’re passionate about curiosity. It guides our work and informs the ways we interact with each other and with our clients. 

Curiosity (seeking the unknown and knowing there is always an unknown) has long been historically linked to scientific study.  

But we like to connect curiosity to the pursuit of stronger, deeper, and more resilient relationships with friends, loved ones, and colleagues. 

And in relationships, assuming the intent of others isn’t always the best tool to serve the health of those relationships. Instead, I invite you to take a curiosity-first approach with others. 

Why Do We Assume Others’ Intentions? 

Short answer: it’s human nature to “fill in the blanks” on why others do what they do. 

But the longer answer is that our brains are wired to be more likely to interpret someone’s actions through the lens of intention. And more often than not negative intention. This brain wiring isn’t an accident; it’s a survival instinct. It seeks out patterns to make it a more effective risk calculator, or what cognitive scientists’ term ‘mental models.’  

One study by Yale Neurobiologists shows that the massive neuron network of the brain needs enormous energy to keep it going, and one method our brain uses to conserve energy is to make assumptions. 

We draw on our experiences in the past to develop ways of working the world. We use these experiences to create assumptions when facing new challenges.  

We also know that the brain is addicted to being right. When we assume intentions that fit our life experiences, our brain activates two prefrontal cortex regions linked with additional rewards.  

And indeed, there are situations where assumptions can serve us. But, when your default is to assume you know how every person you interact with thinks and feels, you stop listening and fall into the trap of never being willing to understand the role you played. 

What’s Wrong with Assuming Good Intent? 

There’s nothing morally wrong with assuming good intent. In some situations, it can serve us. And indeed, I’ve been a practitioner and advocate for optimistic assumptions in others’ actions. 

However, what we know is that good intention doesn’t absolve you of negative impact. 

That’s not to say that intentions don’t matter. They do. 

When someone is coming from a place of malicious intent, that carries a different weight to its impact versus someone with misguided positive intent. 

But those intentions do not remove responsibility for the impact and outcome of your actions. 

You might also like: How Leaders Can Apologize with Sincerity 

How Shadow Intentions Guide Our Actions 

Another pitfall we may find ourselves in is allowing our unconscious shadow intentions to color how we behave when feeling threatened and seeking protection or control within a situation. 

Sometimes we don’t show up as our best selves, which is when regrettable events are most likely to occur. 

We all have off days when we’re hungry, stressed, or dealing with a bruised ego. We know that there are times where we have to interact with others that we may not particularly care for, and we may act in ways, consciously or unconsciously, that are less than how we would hope to show up with regularity. 

Bias in Assuming Intent 

There is a responsibility for the recipient of damaging actions to assume the possibility that the intent wasn’t nefarious. But the problem becomes how we apply these criteria is often guided by personal bias and shadow intentions of our own. 

We often see grace given freely to those who look most like ourselves in the workplace. And this becomes particularly troublesome when you begin to look at how we assume intent through an intersectional lens. 

In our work, we often see this positive attribution given to those who are most like the majority versus those that are underrepresented or marginalized within a company. We also see that more positive intent is assumed for those who hold power within a company over those who don’t.  

That’s not to say this is true all the time for every organization. But it should create a pause for you to ask, “Are we equal in whom we give grace to for how they show up?” 

How Intentions are Misused to Absolve Responsibility 

When we encourage others to regularly assume positive intention about someone else’s words or actions, it’s essential to pause and ask if this will minimize the harm someone has caused. 

Assuming positive intent can also be used to minimize someone’s feelings about an incident. You may be saying, “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that,” but the message you’re communicating is that the recipient is over-reacting to the harm caused.

How to Get Curious About Intent 

As with all things in human relationships: context matters. 

If the harmful incident is with someone whom you know you can check in with and deliver feedback to in a way that will be well-received, it’s easy and safe to get curious with them. 

You may also like: How to Effective Leaders Handle Feedback 

We know that isn’t always the case when it comes to regrettable events. Because of power dynamics, roles and responsibilities, intersectional identities, and beliefs, we may already know that we may be treated differently when we try to get curious with another person. 

When we get curious about intent, you need to make sure you aren’t: 

  • minimizing the hurt or damage that someone’s behavior has caused, or 
  • absolving someone from doing deeper reflection taking ownership of the harm caused. 

We want the person who was on the receiving end to give the benefit of the doubt, but we don’t want to assume that the person causing harm will default to a place of reflection and ownership. 

I tend to adopt a neutral state when it comes to intentions. I acknowledge there was likely intent behind the action, but I won’t pass judgment that it was positive or negative until I’ve had a chance to get curious with this person. In all relationships, it’s essential to allow yourself to be open to whatever possibilities come up to repair that relationship and move forward together. 

It’s very easy to throw your hands up and say, “Well, that wasn’t my intent.” and hope to walk away from a situation unscathed. 

It’s much harder and important to ask yourself, “What role did I play? Why might somebody have felt that way? How might that have been true?” 

Your Fearless Audit 

In what situations is it easy or difficult to reflect on the role you played?  

Who might we attribute positive intent to their actions? 

Who might we attribute harmful purpose to their efforts? 

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