Imagine this scene: balancing my son in one arm, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries and a six year old with my other arm, all while crossing a corrugated parking lot. The front wheel of the cart hits a divot directing all of us towards the center of traffic. I quickly resorted to the trusty “one-handed forearm twist”, attempting to turn the top heavy buggy back on course. An oncoming car stopped short as I made eye contact with the driver. Her window was down so the standard awkward silence arose. “Hey… I promise I won’t hit you,” I said to the woman who looked like an “Erin” to me. I was attempting to break the silence with low grade humor. “No, no, no, I understand, don’t even worry about it,” she reassured me. “I’m in your way, I’m sorry,” she continued. She was all “understanding” but why didn’t she laugh?
What exactly happened there? Perhaps she felt I was judging her speed in the paking lot? Perhaps she heard sarcasm as if I was saying, “Watch where you’re going lady!” Who’s to say? From my perspective I know two things.
1. I know the words I said, and I know the words that she said.
2. I know my intention– the reason I said anything at all– to break the silence, and even maybe make her smile.
What I do not know is what she intended by her words. Conversely she did not know my intention, which explains why she didn’t respond the way I expected.
The basis for all misunderstanding is the assumption that one knows another person’s intention simply by hearing their words. True understanding, true listening requires a pursuit of intention. The pursuit of intention requires being conscious and aware. Being conscious and aware requires getting out of your egoic cave.
For example, if I walked by and said, “Nice shirt.” What just happened there? Who knows? The words mean very little without knowing the intention. Ego may choose to hear a compliment, or it may choose to hear sarcasm. Either way, ego does not investigate intention but judges it to be one or the other without speculation. Consciousness may not know anymore than ego at first. Consciousness, however, withholds judgment until it has detected intention.
True friends, spouses, or siblings, may not ever need the “pursuit of intention” because it is always clear to one another. It is unnecessary because two people have known each other so well for so long. Often times understanding reaches such a level that you know what the other person is saying even if they are not saying that at all. Among friends words point in a general direction but the true meaning comes from somewhere else; from experience, history, intuition, empathy. It’s as if you communicate beyond the words.
Misunderstanding is usually between people that aren’t so friendly, don’t share the same point of view, or simply are too lazy to pursue intention in order to reach true communication. So what is this “pursuit of intention” thing? Here’s my idea:
Steps of Pursuit
1. Hear: Hearing is basically wanting to listen. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” I’m looking at my phone, or I’m concentrating on a very important thought, or I’m talking to someone else. My kids are largely unheard. I couldn’t imagine the level of frustration I would feel if I was ignored even a fraction of the time that they are. Then they yell, or cry, and finally they get attention, but it’s probably in the form of an irritated, “What!” That’s an ego response. Sometimes not hearing comes in the form of not calling my mother, or avoiding a person that annoys me or even just not caring. Hearing seems passive or automatic but it requires a conscious decision to begin hearing.
2. Listen: Listening is even more conscious. It requires opening a window to ourselves and allowing another person’s voice, ideas, and perhaps biases and negativity to enter our space. It’s permission granted onto the campus of our minds and hearts for another person to roam for a moment, leaving their footsteps, messages, or messes behind. It’s like lending a mountain cabin to a friend; you want them to enjoy it but hope they follow the rules of etiquette and wash the towels before they leave.
3. Understand: Understanding is percieving. It’s personally visiting and examining the idea the person has placed inside you during their short stay. This is where the pursuit of intention happens. “What is this person saying with these words? What reaction are they hoping to elicite? What are they seeking by placing this in me?” The answer to those question come in many forms, but most people are looking for connection by their words. They are being emotionally vulnerable looking for some form of reciprocation or return, an intimate affinity, a sense of being loved, or just a sense of companionship. Or mabe they just want you to pass the salt, but you know what I mean.
4. Love: I saw a post on Facebook that said, “You cannot hate someone whose story you know.” I don’t think that’s entirely true, but it works for me here. By listening and percieving a person, and knowing their intention you may feel “on their side”, and prepare a response. The response bubbles up from within you, not from your thoughts or ego, but the you that is outside the cave. The response is unequivocally sympathetic, empathetic, loving, and forgiving. You may discover a sense of unity with the other person and wish to express this back to them.
5. Respond: Speak to them from that loving space.
All of this seems like it would take hours to do. In reality it is as quick as thought, but takes some intentional practice at first. Of course we don’t react this way to all encounters with all people, but isn’t that the goal? I think this is the “Peace on earth and good will toward men” thing we sing about at Christmas, but it won’t come from above. It comes from within. It requires all of us to buy in.