What's My Intention?

A Simple Exercise to Connect to the True Intention Behind Every Action (or Inaction)

By Raj Gill, Lucy Leu and Judi Morin, adapted from the NVC Toolkit for Facilitators

There is an intention behind everything we choose to do or not do, say or not say. For example: I decide to wash the dishes that someone has left in the sink. My intention might be to make that person feel guilty and teach them a lesson on how things “should” be done. If I become aware of my intention, I can choose to follow-through on it or choose not to. And, if I do decide to wash the dishes, I might then do so because I want to contribute to a cleaner and more pleasant living space.

Are you aware of the intention behind your actions or inactions? Do this simple exercise to check in.

The intention of NVC is to develop a quality of connection that allows us to understand and value each other’s needs, and then together explore how to meet both of our needs. We hold this intention to connect heart-to-heart – even when we are angry or “don’t feel like connecting” — by remembering that connection is the value we are choosing to live from in this moment.

On the other hand, if we are invested only in getting certain results, and have no intention to connect human to human, heart to heart, then no matter how strictly our speech adheres to the NVC model, we are not expressing NVC consciousness.

When we are aware of our intention, we have the freedom to stay with our intention or change our intention.

Another example: I decide to go up to a neighbor whose radio is blaring. An unconscious intention behind my action might be to let that person know how rude or disrespectful they are. With awareness, I might choose to change my intention, approaching them with the intention to support them in finding a way to enjoy their music in a different way.

When we use force, sometimes our intention is to inflict harm or pain on another person. At other times our intention may be to protect the person. For example, I grab a child who has run out on the road. Annoyed, I squeeze his arm hard while dragging him roughly back to the sidewalk.

I may think that if it hurts enough, maybe he won’t run out again. If asked to state the intention behind my action, I might say it is to protect the child from traffic harm. If asked to reflect further, I might add that my intention was also to impress upon him that running into the street brings unpleasant consequences. Only by looking even more deeply might I see that, in my annoyance, I also intended for him to feel some pain as a form of punishment for what he did.

To help you check in to your intention, run through the exercise below.

  1. Bring to mind something you did or did not do, something you said or did not say. If you have difficulty doing this, try recalling something specific you did that involves:
    • The use of force
    • Offering someone “negative feedback” or “constructive criticism”
    • Agreeing to do something someone asks of you
    • Saying no to someone
    • “Being good,” “being nice”
    • Telling a joke, “being funny,” saying something humorous
  2. Describe on paper what you did or said, and state the intention behind it.
  3. Now, reflect on whether there were deeper layers of intention beneath the one just named. If so, write down whatever you discover.
  4. When you became aware of an intention, did you want to change your intention? Did you want to change your action? Write down any thoughts or feelings that come to mind as you ask yourself these questions.

Raj Gill, Lucy Leu and Judi Morin are the coauthors of the NVC Toolkit for Facilitators. Judi Morin, a Sister of St. Ann, served for 26 years as prison chaplain for Correctional Service Canada. Lucy Leu co-founded Freedom Project to establish NVC and mindfulness trainings for prisoners and returnees, and is the author of the NVC Companion Workbook. Raj Gill brings 30 years of teaching experience to the NVC and leadership trainings she leads for schools, youth groups, prisons, businesses, government and nonprofit organizations.