“Am I Making Myself Clear?” The Difference Between Intent and Perception.

ManagementWe have given the most incredible gift of communication.  Our ability to interact orally is utterly unique compared to any other creature on the planet.  We are good at it too.  We read subtle nuance, and micro gestures across the lyrics, song and dance of our discussions.  Yet even given all this, we still on occasions get it wrong, we fall down between the cracks of understanding, miss reading something that someone has said, and so introduce unhelpful stress into our relationships, both working and personal.

Often we will start to notice that the conversation is beginning to progress in an unhelpful way, perhaps emotion is swelling a little and the dialogue not unfolding in a helpful way.  It’s in these moments we need to become a little analytical and work out how we can restore equilibrium, and ‘understanding’ back into the dialogue.

A simple tool that can help us do this is found in recognising the appearance of the ‘arc of distortion’.  Diagrammatically it looks something like this:

In those trigger moments, when we notice that the dialogue is not progressing well, we need to reposition and seek to narrow the gap between intent and perception.

The two questions I need to use for this diagnosis couldn’t be simpler:

  1. What is my intent in this conversation?
  2. What is the likely perception of the other party?

Understanding the distinction between ‘intent’ and ‘perception’ is crucial. ‘Intent’ is internal, residing within the individual. It’s what you intend or mean. In contrast, ‘perception’ is external, belonging to those who receive your intentions.

We will always have intent by the way.  So if that’s the case, better understanding my intent will enable me to better position my communication to limit the potential for distortion.  Catch the distortion early in the flow and that’s often all I will need to do.  Quickly ask me that one question, and fine-tune my next response in light of it.

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If that’s still not taking the conversation in a more helpful direction then question 2 comes into play.  How is the other party perceiving what I am saying?  This is more tricky as I’m likely making some assumptions about how they are reading me.  However, this question refines our first diagnosis and may enable us to bring about a more significant change in the delivery of our dialogue.  At this point change is what’s required.  If I continue unaltered in my approach, I will inevitably continue to enlarge the distortion.  It’s definitely worth interjecting a significant alteration at this point, to really switch the perception.  That could be as simple as altering my posture significantly.  For example, my colleague is seated at their desk, I’m rushing around packing a bag of training materials and thinking about heading out to the car for a longish journey.  I notice that the conversation is not progressing well, so I stop my lack of attention, sit down next to the colleague, pause and say “Sorry, say that again, you’ve now got my undivided attention”.  In a moment I have demonstrated an increase in both my attention, interest and care towards the other person.  The likely response will be to narrow the distortion and increase the alignment of both my intent and their perception.

Don’t ever be afraid to surface your intention, sometimes it can be really helpful to put it right out there… “My intention in this is…”  Make it easy and accessible more of the time, and you will find that you have less distortion to deal with on a daily basis.

Bob Bannister

Ships Captain

We are exploring this topic more deeply in Squeeze episode 3, so please do have a listen.  Squeeze is also available on all the usual podcast apps.