Determine Intent & Destroy Misunderstanding

By | October 14, 2008

“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:

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“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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

I don’t know about you, but many times when I hear the word negotiate I think of lawyers working out a business deal or having to do battle with a car salesman to try to get a lower price. Since I am in recruiting, the term “negotiation” comes up when someone is attempting to get a higher compensation package.

If we think about it, we tend to negotiate almost every day in a wide variety of things we do. Getting a handle on the important negotiation skills can be incredibly beneficial in many parts of our lives. Let’s take a look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

What is Negotiation?

First, let’s take a look at what negotiation is. Put simply, negotiation is a method by which people settle their differences. It is a process in which compromise or agreement can be reached without argument or dispute.

Anytime two people or sides disagree on something, they are almost always looking for the best possible outcome for their side. This could be from an individual’s perspective or someone representing an organization.

In reality, it’s rare that one side gets everything they want and the other side gets nothing that they are seeking. Seeking to reach a common ground of sorts where both sides feel like they are getting most of what they want is the key to being successful and maintaining the relationship.

Places We Negotiate

I’ve mentioned that we negotiate in just about all phases of our life. For those of you who are shaking your head no, I invite you to think about the following:

1. Work/Business

This one is the most obvious and it’s what naturally comes to mind when we think of the word “negotiate”.

When you first started at your current job, you might have asked for a higher salary. It could be that you delivered a huge new client to your company and used this as leverage in your most recent evaluation for more compensation. If you work with vendors (and just about every company does), maybe you worked them to a lower price or better contract terms.

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In recruiting, I negotiate with candidates and hiring managers all the time to land the best talent I can find. It’s very common to accept additional work with the (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) agreement that it will benefit your career in the future.

Recently, I took over a project that was my boss was working on so that I would be able to attend a conference later in the year. And so it goes, we do this all day long at work.

2. Personal

I don’t know about you, but I negotiate with my spouse all the time. I’ll cook dinner with the understanding that she does the dishes. Who wants to mow the lawn and who wants to vacuum and dust the house?

I think we should save 10% for retirement, but she thinks 5% is plenty. Therefore, we save 8%. And don’t even get me started with my kids. My older daughter can borrow my car as soon as she finishes her chores. My younger daughter can go hang out with her friends when her homework is done.

Then, there are all those interactions in our personal lives outside our homes. The carpenter wants to charge me $12,000 to build a new deck. I think $10,000 is plenty so we agree on $11,000. I ask my neighbor if I can borrow his snowblower in the winter if I invite him over the next time I grill steak. And so on.

3. Ourselves

You didn’t expect this one, did you? We negotiate with ourselves all day long.

I’ll make sure I don’t skip my workout tomorrow since I’m going to have that extra piece of pizza. My spouse has been quiet the last few days, is it worth me asking her about, or should I leave it alone? I think the car place charged me for some repairs that weren’t needed, should I say something or just let it go? I know my friend has been having some personal challenges, should I check in with him? We’ve been friends for a long time, I’m sure he’d come to me if he needed help. I’ve got the #4 pick in this year’s Fantasy Football draft, should I choose a running back or a wide receiver?

Think about that non-stop voice inside your head. It always seems to be chattering away about something and many times, it’s us negotiating with ourselves. I’ll finish up that report that the boss needs before I turn on the football game.

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Why Negotiation Skills Are So Important

Put simply, negotiation skills are important because we all interact with other people, and not only other people but other organizations and groups of people as well.

We all rarely want the same thing or outcome. Most of the time a vendor is looking at getting you to pay a higher price for something than you want to spend. Therefore, it’s important to negotiate to some middle ground that works well for both sides.

My wife and I disagree on how much to save for retirement. If we weren’t married it wouldn’t be an issue. We’d each contribute how much we wanted to on our retirement funds. We choose to be married, so we have to come to some agreement that we both feel comfortable with. We have to compromise. Therefore, we have to negotiate.

If we each lived on a planet by ourselves, we would be free to do just about anything we wanted to. We wouldn’t have to compromise with anyone because we wouldn’t interact with anyone. We would make every choice unilaterally the way we wanted to.

As we all know, this isn’t how things are. We are constantly interacting with other people and organizations, each one with their own agenda’s, viewpoints, and opinions. Therefore, we have to be able to work together.

6 Negotiation Skills to Master

Having strong negotiation skills helps us create win-win situations with others, allowing us to get most of what we want in conjunction with others around us.

Now, let’s look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

1. Preparation

Preparation is a key place to start with when getting ready to negotiate. Being prepared means having a clear vision of what you want and how you’d go about achieving it. It means knowing what the end goal looks like and also what you are willing to give to get it.

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It also means knowing who you are negotiating with and what areas they might be willing to compromise on. You should also know what your “bottom line” is. By “bottom line” I mean what is the most you are willing to give up to get what you want.

For instance, several years ago, I decided it was time to get a newer car. I say newer because I wanted a “new to me” car, not a brand new car. I did my research and figured out what type of car I wanted. I decided on what must-have items on the car I wanted, the highest amount of miles that would already be on it, the colors I was willing to get it in, and the highest amount of money I was willing to pay.

After visiting numerous car dealerships I was able to negotiate buying a car. I knew what I was willing to give up (amount of money) and what I was willing to accept, things like the color, amount of miles, etc. I came prepared. This is critical.

2. Clear Communication

The next key skill you need to be an effective negotiator is clear communication. You have to be able to clearly articulate what you want to the other party. This means both clear verbal and written communication.

If you can’t clearly tell the other person what you want, how do you expect to get it? Have you ever worked through something with a vendor or someone else only to learn of a surprise right at the end that wasn’t talked about before? This is not what you would call clear communication. It’s essential to be able to share a coherent and logical vision with the person you are working with.

3. Active Listening

Let’s do a quick review of active listening. This is when you are completely focused on the speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond appropriately. This is a necessary ingredient to be able to negotiate successfully. You must be able to fully focus on the other person’s wants to completely understand them.

If you aren’t giving them your full attention, you may miss some major points or details. This leads to frustration down the road on both sides. Ensure you are employing your active listening skills when in arbitration mode.

4. Teamwork and Collaboration

To be able to get to a place of common ground and a win-win scenario, you have to have a sense of teamwork and collaboration.

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If you are only thinking about yourself and what you want without giving much care to what the other person is wanting, you are bound to wind up without a solution. The other person may get frustrated and give up if they see you are unwilling to meet them halfway or care little for what they want.

When you collaborate, you are working together to help each other get what is most important to you. The other upside to negotiating with a sense of teamwork and collaboration is that it helps create a sense of trust, which, in turn, helps provide positive energy for working to a successful conclusion.

5. Problem Solving

Problem-solving is another key negotiation skill. When you are working with the other person to get the deal done many times you’ll face new challenges along the way.

Maybe you want a new vendor to provide training on the software they are selling you but they say it’s going to cost an additional $20,000 to provide this service. If you don’t have the additional $20,000 in the budget to spend on the software but you feel the training is critical, how are you going to solve that problem?

From what I’ve seen, most vendors aren’t willing to provide additional services without getting paid for them. This is where problem-solving skills will help continue the discussions. You might suggest to the vendor that your company will also be looking to replace their financial software next year, and you’d be happy to ensure they get one of the first seats at the table when the time comes if they could perhaps lower the pricing on their training.

There’s a solution to most challenges, but it takes problem-solving skills to work through them effectively.

6. Decision-Making Ability

Finally, having strong decision-making ability will help you seal the deal when you get to a place where everyone feels like they are getting what works for them. Each step of the way you can cross off the list when you get what you are looking for and decide to move onto the next item. Then, once you have all of your must-have boxes checked and the other side feels good about things, it’s time to shake hands and sign on the dotted line. Powerful decision-making ability will help you get to the finish line together.

Conclusion

There you have it, 6 effective negotiation skills to master to lead a more fulfilling life. Once we realize that we negotiate in one form or another almost every day in every phase of our lives, we realize how critical a skill it is.

Possessing strong negotiation skills will help you in nearly every one of your relationships at both the workplace and in your personal life. If you feel your arbitration tools could use some sharpening, try some of the 6 effective negotiation skills to master that we’ve talked about.

More Tips to Improve Your Negotiation Skills