“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” -Robert J. Hanlon

In the classic 70s sitcom Three’s Company, many punchlines were the result of misunderstanding: whether it was the late John Ritter as chef Jack Tripper being mistaken as a gay man by his landlord, Mr. Roper, or a later landlord named Mr. Furley overhearing innocent talk and mistaking it for sexual innuendo — we could always count on the laughs to come quick and hard because assumptions bloomed like flowers and careful questioning was out of the, well, question.

Of course, Three’s Company wouldn’t be so funny if more characters weren’t so blind to believe based on their own limited worldview, like Chrissy Snow stereotyped as the “dumb blonde”, a tradition that continues in many comedy shows today.

It’s true misunderstandings can make us laugh in real life, but they also cause a lot of conflict: on the Internet, heated arguments erupt like acne boils into flamewars because two people at odds with each other would rather assume the other side’s position and cast their own filters, instead of being curious and learning. The same is true offline, although the greater bandwidth we have face-to-face gives us more benefit to clarify things with a gentle smile and shrug in realtime. Still, as we’ve witnessed from cultural clashes and bitter battles over little things (that’s how they look to “outsiders”), there’s always much to gain from getting the story straight, and the focus of this thinklet, intent.

What’s the big deal about intent?

Gavel by noyava.
Photo by noyava

In criminal law, intention can make the difference between getting a life sentence vs. a few years, or in rarer cases, not being imprisoned at all — as the quote I chose above serves to illustrate, there’s a significant difference between malice (which nets the most serious punishments) and stupidity, which is why wordy lawyers may advise their client to act dumb, or even insane. Or blame foodstuffs.

Outside of a court and in your personal life, no good communicator’s toolbox lacks a robust process to determine intent. It’s true there just happen to be some sociopaths who, in the spirit of The Joker, will never tell you the straight story. But you can’t make possibly make exceptions for every case, so on a practical basis, they don’t count. By far and large, most people will be reasonable and willing to explain their perspective so you both have a better — and mutual — understanding.

How do you do it?

Surprisingly simple. Like this:

“Please explain what you mean?”

I’m shocked it isn’t done more.

You can vary this in a number of ways, from the two-word “Details please?” to a flourish-filled and elaborate “Pardon my misunderstanding, but could you please shine a light on where you’re coming from?” The exact verbiage depends on your personal style, but the end result is the same: it opens the other person up and encourages them to talk.

Wait — don’t step in yet! Wait until they’re finished. (If you’re in a live conversation. Obviously, this doesn’t apply on a web forum.)

Being a good listener can show respect, but it also demonstrates willingness to learn, even if you feel angry towards them. Missing pieces come into play, and that added information can change the whole “gravity” of the situation.

Good for rude questions too

Have you, especially if you’re a woman, been asked about your weight by a stranger? It’s almost always nosy and intrusive, and you may be asking yourself, “Why are they asking me?” In which case, you might as well say it out loud, firmly but pleasantly:

“Why do you ask?”

Their response will help clarify their intent, their motivation behind asking you. Whether it was out of sheer curiosity or veiled prejudice popping to the surface, you’ll hopefully now know.

I’ve heard this to-the-point technique used with great effect by several of my friends, and it serves the purpose of putting them in a position to explain themselves, instead of making you feel awkward.

I know when it’s not easy

There may be times on the Net when you’re paragraphs-deep into a response that’ll wear out your scroll wheel and (maybe) prove you’re right. But you know what? You won’t, can’t succeed in changing minds by force. You present why you believe something, and it’s more likely the other person will change their own mind. Certainly, you can be a positive influence, but you aren’t doing a Jedi Mind Trick. (Although some of us wish we could.)

Jedi Council 2007 by Zeetz Jones.
Photo by Zeetz Jones

In really tense times, you may find it difficult to be the better person and humble yourself. You may find it hard to even ask “Why?”, and fall back on assuming the other person is just a jackass.

But oh, how often I’ve been wrong because of that: we all have our bad days. It’s a shame when two people have a bad day and ram into each other (whether physically, textually, or otherwise) and assault each other — just makes the day worse.

(Some people are jerks. But you shouldn’t leap to that conclusion without a quick-yet-reliable “barometer of intent”.)

Truth: it’s unarguably better to brighten someone else’s day, and enrich your own too. Which is another reason why determining intent is so important.

There’s an anecdote I love, and you may’ve heard it before — if so, great! Everyone should keep this fresh in mind:

A man and his daughter are on a bus, and the little girl is bawling her eyes out and making a racket. Everyone can hear it, and an angry lady in the back goes, “Hmph! What a badly-behaved child. Must be an awful father who can’t control his young.”

So angry lady barges forward and gets into a confrontation. She does not ask. She does not exhibit the slightest iota of curiosity. She barks, “Tell your kid to shut up! She’s disturbing everyone!”

Of course she is.

But what angry lady doesn’t know is the girl’s mother, the man’s wife, was just in a severe car accident and following an extended stay, they’re on their way home from the hospital. (They aren’t in a car because the family vehicle was ruined beyond recognition.)

The chances of you coming across a situation exactly like that would be rare, I hope, but it concisely illustrates why determining intent, motivation, and context are so important. Intent can be thought of as pre-action, and while I’m sure the little girl didn’t have much control over her emotions at the moment, her tears undeniably happened because her mum just passed away.

But yes, I know it’s not easy.

You’ll have to practice, like I have. It does become easier with experience — doing it lots, over and over. Living life. As each & all of us do.

Sunset & the Thinker by Esparta.
Photo by Esparta

Remember that: pre-action

Intent includes ideas. Execution of ideas springs forth from that bedrock. Thinkers who intend to do something, then get it done.

The end result may be the “final destination” of the journey of an idea, but is impossible without the road traveled. I’m not being over-philosophical, I’m merely demonstrating the process of human behavior.

We all have feelings we don’t act on. Conversely, we have actions we didn’t think much about (and there’s healthy and unhealthy varieties of impulsive behavior). But somewhere in the middle, towards the beginning, is our intent, and the intent remains valid (and admissible in a court of law, as premeditated murder makes clear), even if an action is carried out. And in case you’re wondering, since it is a famous quip, good intentions only pave the “road to hell” if you don’t live up to your actions.

We can’t easily forget pain. As we continue to unravel the mystery of the human brain, some recent studies have even shown that hurt feelings are worse than pain. Conclusively, we don’t know yet. But I do know that a quick-check of someone’s intent, up-front, will be the fulcrum on which your future communication turns. If someone blatantly doesn’t answer earnestly or insults you back unreasonably, then no shared discussion can take place — at least, not for now. Perhaps they’ll cool down, change their intention to butt heads, and apologize. Perhaps not.

But regardless of external circumstances, the fact remains: you’re in control of yourself, and you can distance yourself and engage in conversations where you’ve determined the intent is beneficial for everyone involved.

“Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated. It operates in spite of the warrior’s indulgence. Intent is what makes him invulnerable. Intent is what sends a shaman through a wall, through space, to infinity.” -Carlos Castaneda

That applies to women, too. I wish the English language had better pronouns.

Best of hope — and in the comments, as I like to say, unleash your stories of intent!

Love this article?