Relationships are challenging with limited information

Why it serves us well to ask questions, stay curious, and not make assumptions

Interactions, relationships and the language we use to navigate them fascinates me. I think about behavior, feelings, and relationships constantly but never thought about it so clearly until this podcast episode. David Bradford and Carole Robin teach a legendary class at Stanford Business School. They were interviewed on Dr. Chatterjee’s podcast and I’m forever changed.

The 3 Realities of Interactions

  1. Intention
  2. Behavior
  3. Impact

What makes relationships so messy and beautiful lies in these three realities. The primary challenge is that initially, each person only knows two of the three realities. For example, I see Keener push Grace. The behavior is clear, he pushed Grace. The impact is clear, Grace is crying and upset. What Grace and I both don’t know (although we always speculate) is his intention. Only he knows that.

What is Intention?

Intention is only known to the person expressing the behavior. According to Bradford and Robin, it is comprised of our needs, motives, and the situation. When I yell at my kids, my intention is actually good: my motivation for yelling is for them to listen. It also means I’m overwhelmed with the situation that’s happening and I’m trying to regain control and maintain order. All of these “behind the scenes” needs/situation are consciously or unconsciously playing into my decision to yell (which is only known to me).

What is Behavior?

Behavior is the action. It’s the verbal and nonverbal output that pass the “stranger test.” Anyone would be able to agree, she yelled. She raised her voice and yelled at her kids. It’s not just the words or actions but our body language and tone as well.

What is Impact?

The impact is what my yelling does to my kids. It’s comprised of feelings, reactions, and responses. The impact may be that my kids cry. It may also be that they do what I’m asking. Further they might feel scared or worried or actually enjoy seeing me act like a fool.

The challenge is, right off the bat, I only know my intentions and behavior. I do not know the impact my behavior will have on others. Similarly, my kids only know my behavior and the impact, they do not know my intentions. However, SO often, we “jump over the net” and try and tell people their intentions or what we think their impact should be. And this never works.

Guessing Intentions

I often feel like when my kids spill things, they are doing it because they hate me. Messes are a total trigger for me and they are intending to make me lose it. In reality, when I stay on my side of the net, I realize this makes no sense. First of all, I am not in their head and don’t know their intention. Second, accidents happen, and will happen again.

The other day Keener pushed Mack. Mack is the ripe old age of nine months and in total destruction mode. Keener is nearly five and is in complete creation mode. Mack destroyed one of Keener’s creations so Keener pushed him away. Immediately, I jumped over the net forgetting that all I could really see was his behavior and his impact. Catching myself, I asked Keener about his intention.

Low and behold, he was not intending to hurt Mack and make him cry. He was intending to get him away from his building. From there, we were able to brainstorm other, safer, ways he could move Mack away next time. (I.e. Make something for Mack to destroy, ask mom to move him, gently pick him up and move him across the room, etc.)

Not only is not knowing others’ intentions and assuming we do unfair, it’s also detrimental. The stories we tell ourselves when we don’t have information can be crippling. In full disclosure, I was sitting there thinking, What is wrong with this child? He just pushed a baby! He’s heartless! Have I taught him nothing! What I was doing there now sounds nuts, but man was it real in the moment. Before I asked him about his intentions and assumed I knew them, I was telling myself damaging, untrue stories. These stories didn’t serve me or Keener. Thankfully, I caught myself and asked him his intentions.

The Value of Curiosity

Brene Brown talks a lot about curiosity and it fits in here perfectly. If we can stay curious just a little bit longer, it helps strengthen our relationships. If we respond with curiosity and leave judgement, shame or assumptions aside, we are open and available to those around us. I know I want my kids coming to me down the road when life gets tricky. And I know they won’t if my responses are filled with judgement. As I mentioned last week, we run the risk of making things about ourselves, giving advice for our own ego. Curiosity is the gift we give to ourselves and those we care about; staying quiet, intrigued, and open to truly learn about others’ intentions.

Assume good intentions

Lastly, this is why we should always assume good intentions. As I stated above, my intentions when I yell are actually good. From my kids point of view? My intentions/motivation probably come off something like mom is overwhelmed, angry, and taking out her frustration on us. My first principal I worked for talked about the importance of assuming good intentions at work and I always remember it. Not that I am always able to do it, but I know how important it is to try. So next time your kids are screaming, whining, fighting, or making a mess, try and stay on your side of the net. Be mindful of the stories you are telling yourself and, if possible, ask them about their intentions without assuming you know.

If they are too little or overwhelmed to answer, assume their intention behind the behavior was good. Remind yourself that these young people have underdeveloped brains, not bad intentions.

“Stay on your side of the net” is a phrase used by David Bradford and Carole Robin. To learn more, check out their book, Connect or their website Connect and Relate.


  1. What a wonderful world we can live in if we remain curious and assume positive intentions “on our side of the net”. Thank you for giving my heart and my head something so positive to think about.

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