Coach Kim: Intent matters if you want a good relationship

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SALT LAKE CITY — I work with many couples who experience conflict in their relationships and who want to change that. Often, these couples fight over small things that hinge on misunderstandings of intent.

Most of us don't take the time to understand "the why" behind another person's behavior or their intent before we react. We don't ask questions about why our partner did what they did. We must start doing this if we want a healthy relationship because the intent matters.

When we don't know someone's true intent, there will be many unintentional slights, misunderstandings and assumptions of wrongdoing when wrong isn't even there.

Seneca, the author of "Moral Essays" said, "A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer." The same could be said about an offense: People can do the wrong thing for the right reason, and it changes the thing.

If couples can learn to stop before getting upset or offended, and take the time to ask questions and really understand why their partner behaved the way they did, they can nip most conflicts in the bud.

But this means watching yourself for anger and stopping yourself before you say or do anything. It means deciding — in the moment — to ask kind, understanding questions to get more information before you jump to conclusions or add meaning to their behavior.

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Let me give you an example. Sally had asked Tom to pick up something at the store for her on his way home from work. He forgot the item because he was in a rush and had left work deeply upset about something his boss had said. When he got home and Sally realized he had not done what she asked, she was upset and felt unimportant and unsupported. She took the offense personally and got angry at Tom for what she viewed as mistreatment.

What I want you to see in this example is Sally's reaction to the events came from intent she was assuming or applying to what happened. Tom forgot to stop at the store for her. Those are the simple facts. She added meaning and intent to the facts by telling herself forgetting meant he didn't listen, care, want to help or support her.

Those were not the real reason he forgot to stop. Tom forgot to stop at the store because he was preoccupied with fear about his own situation and he inadvertently let it slip his mind. This had nothing to do with Sally and how he feels about her.

I can understand her frustration, though; and if this was something that happened a lot, it might have other meaning attached to it. But this one time, his intent wasn't malicious or about her.

In a recent article, I suggested that when someone offends you, you should try and figure out which of four possible reasons might be behind the behavior. The four most common reasons people behave badly are:

  1. They were oblivious and not paying attention. They didn't mean to disregard you or mistreat you; they were simply not being aware.
  2. They are dealing with their own fear issues, and their behavior is focused on finding a sense of safety for themselves.
  3. They are in a serious fear state where they are feeling generally defensive, always protecting themselves and seeing everyone as a threat.
  4. They intentionally wanted to hurt you or do you wrong.

Any time you get upset, ask yourself which of the four reasons might be the why behind the other person's bad behavior. The author James A. Owen said, "Don't ascribe to evil what can be attributed to well-intentioned stupidity." The truth is, most offenses in your relationship are just that, unintentional stupidity.

If you still feel justified to have an angry and reactive response, you might stop and ask yourself why you want to be angry. What is the intent behind your anger? The why behind your reaction is just as important as the why behind theirs.

  • Do you feel unsafe and feel the need to protect yourself from mistreatment?
  • What will an angry reaction create?
  • Is that an outcome you want?
  • What do you really want in this relationship?
  • What reaction or behavior would create that?

When Sally realized that Tom had forgotten to stop at the store, instead of taking this as a personal offense and getting mad at him — a response that is driven by fear — she might have decided to ask some kind and understanding questions so she could learn what really happened with her partner and what his intent was.

Asking kind questions with the purpose of understanding and getting to know this person feels very different than asking defensive, accusatory questions. Here are some examples.

"Why did you not do the one thing I asked you to do Tom?" That is an accusatory question that doesn't show a desire to understand.

A better question might be: "I noticed you forgot to stop at the store, are you OK? What's been happening today?"

The most important skill a couple can have is the ability to have mutually validating conversations that are focused on understanding each other. Unfortunately, a lot of people listen with the intent to reply, not the intent to understand.

The key to communicating in a way that validates both parties and leads to understanding and compromise (instead of conflict) lies in following a few simple rules.

Don't speak down to your partner

Never speak down to your partner from a high horse position, where you are the good one and they are the bad one. If a conversation starts this way, it will never end well. Remember that you both have the same intrinsic value and deserve to be respected. Always speak to your partner as an equal and in a respectful tone. Let them know that you are not coming from a place of judgment, just a place of wanting to understand and know them better.

Don't start with your feelings

Never start the conversation with all your thoughts and feelings. Start with asking questions about what your partner is thinking and feeling. Set your thoughts, feelings, opinions and ideas aside in the beginning; you will get the chance to share them later on. If you start by listening, your partner will be less defensive and they may actually feel safe enough to share with you.

Understand your partner's core fear and core value system

I have mentioned them in previous articles, but their core fear is either fear of failure or fear of loss; their core value system is either connection, tasks, things or ideas. If you understand how your partner is wired at this level, you can usually see the intent behind their behavior.

Tom, in the example above, might have fear of failure as his core fear. His fear of failing at work may have had him so consumed that he forgot everything else. Or maybe he values connection most and was so upset about the bad conversation with his boss that a task slipped his mind. He just values people more than tasks. Understanding your partner at this level could be a game-changer.

Focus on your partner's feelings

Ask kind, supportive questions about what your partner was feeling when the offense happened. Make sure these questions aren't an attack or pointed at making them wrong but are instead focused on understanding them. Spend the time to explore their state of mind, thoughts and feelings. You might be amazing at what you learn that you didn't know.

Remember intent matters

Remember intent matters, words matter and tone matters. Choose carefully.

Ask to share your feelings

Ask if your partner would be willing to let you share where you were and what you were thinking and feeling. Don't assume your partner should listen to you; ask them if they are willing and able to really listen and understand you. Ask if they would be willing to not interrupt and let you fully explain your side before they say anything. Ask for exactly what you need from them to make you feel heard and understood.

Use 'I' statements

Use "I" statements not "you" statements. Say things like, "I believe, I think, I feel, I experience, I react to, or in my opinion. Avoid saying, "You always," "You never," "You didn't care or try." As you can see, "you" statements feel like an attack. Keep your comments all about yourself and don't talk about your spouse. Let them speak for themselves.

Practice makes perfect

Repeat these steps until you gain understanding or come to a compromise.

Try this week to ask more questions and pay more attention to intent. Show your partner that you can give them the benefit of the doubt, and that most of the time offenses are unintentional. Give them room to be distracted, self-focused because of fear, and sometimes miss things. Be willing to forgive most garden variety slights in favor of a healthier, happier relationship.

You can do this.

More LIFEadvice:

Kimberly Giles

About the Author: Kimberly Giles

Coach Kim Giles is a master life coach and speaker who helps clients improve themselves and their relationships. She is the author of "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and has a free clarity assessment available on her website. Learn more at

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Coach Kim Giles is a master life coach and speaker who helps clients improve themselves and their relationships. She is the author of "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and has a free clarity assessment available on her website. Learn more at


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