Guess who is coming to dinner?

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The other week I had dinner with a close friend: Jessica. As soon as she arrived, I could tell she was angry. It had clearly been one of those days for her. Jessica was so mad that I almost expected to see steam come out of her ears. It took her a few minutes to calm down enough to be able to share the story of an email she had received from her boss’ boss that day. 

The week before, Jessica had completed two intense weeks of facilitation for a leadership team. During that time, she was traveling, not able to see her family and her energy was waning. Each night there was a team dinner and her days were very long. Jessica struggled to find time to talk to her young children. During the day, she was focused on driving the discussion to key results. After dinner, she was focused on preparing for the next day. While things were going well, Jessica was tired and running out of resilience. At the end of the two weeks, there was one last dinner for the group. Jessica let the participants know that morning that she was going to be unable to make the dinner. She needed to get back home to deal with a few unexpected issues that had come up involving her children. As the group departed for dinner, she said her goodbyes and headed home. She was proud of a successful two weeks and exhausted from so much facilitation. 

The next week Jessica came into work and saw an email in her inbox from her boss’ boss: Rob. She smiled and thought it was a message to thank her for the positive feedback he had heard about the session and was offering her praise. She eagerly clicked on it, feeling pride that Rob noticed her work and reached out. Jessica’s mouth fell open in surprise and dismay as she read the message. Not only wasn’t the email offering praise, it was rather curt in tone. The email made no mention of her facilitation and work – or how pleased the leadership team was with the outcome. The message focused on expressing disappointment that she didn’t go to the final dinner. That there was a charge for her plate even though she didn’t attend, and this wasn’t acceptable behavior. The message ended with “I know you are trying to make this work/life balance thing work… something to consider. Thanks for all you do.  -Rob” 

I sat quietly listening to Jessica vent how angry she was at Rob. That he didn’t assume positive intent or ask the reason why she didn’t go to dinner. There was no recognition that she had been with the group every night for two weeks. Or that she let the group know that morning that she wouldn’t be attending dinner. There was no request for a conversation to understand the situation – just an email sent in a condescending tone. That Rob wasn’t even at this dinner for which she was being scolded for not attending. Jessica ended her venting with “That did it, I’m looking for another job!” 

I hear examples like this all the time in my work in leadership development. I find stories like this are often not even about the people involved. They are quickly escalated by frustration and emotions around the circumstances. I’m pretty certain Rob’s intent was not to scold Jessica so that she quit. In fact, he would probably be shocked to learn that she wants to quit. Rob felt something needed to be addressed or a point needed to be made and likely didn’t think through how it would land on her. Jessica was caught up in the emotion of the circumstance and couldn’t stop to consider what the leader’s intention may have been. While it is easy to focus on the cringe-worthy things the leader did, it is important not get stuck in a battle of intentions as described in this book, “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Stone, Patton and Heen. Without understanding intent on either side, it is easy to make assumptions that are often incorrect and can cause harm to relationship equity. Two things typically happen around intent and assumptions:

  • We treat our own intent more charitably: We always know our intent but often assume other’s intent is bad, particularly in heated moments. Without talking to the other person, you can’t know their intentions. If we feel hurt, we assume someone set out to hurt us. This is often wrong and not what was intended. 

  • Once you assume intentions were bad, you quickly make the jump to bad character. In the heat of the moment, emotions can quickly escalate, and we start making assumptions about whether someone is a good person. This is how stereotypes and bias are often formed.

How do you avoid falling into the intention assumptions and creating unnecessary swirl?

  1. Share your intentions. When you are stating your point of view or purpose behind your actions, don’t leave it to others to assume your intent. Describe your intent at the onset.

  2. Use active listening when talking with others to ensure you are understanding what they are saying, even if you don’t agree.

  3. Check your assumptions. When you feel impacted by something someone says or does, pause and ask yourself: what did the other person say/do, what was the impact on me, and what assumptions am I making?

  4. Ask other’s intentions Once you define your assumptions, check them with the person to see if you are understanding correctly, share the impact on you and ask for clarification.

Next time you are feeling fired up due to someone’s message, conversation or actions, what will you do to check in on the person’s intent?