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Communicating Intentionally ~ the Basics

December 12, 2013


The Intentional Workplace blog began with this post. What could be more basic than to understand the nature of communication? But more important, how we communicate and why.

The message was simple but seems to grow more important every day  – everything comes down to how we communicate.  All the things that we want and need start with a thought process that is communicated to others.  Most of us do it on auto-pilot. Often that limits or derails the results we want to get.  It can also leave hard feelings and unclear signals about who we are, what we want and how we really feel.

There’s a great quote by author Stephen Covey that captures the feeling content of most communication, “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”  That’s often true but it usually happens at the back-end of communication. What’s more common is that we find ourselves in the midst of a communication and have no awareness of what our intentions are. 

Distractions, lack of focus, acting from limited emotional awareness (of self and others) and emotional self-protection, the quest for clean, clear, honest communication eludes even those most dedicated to it.  People seek out our services, often looking for shortcuts to easier and more “fool-proof” communication formulas.  The hard truth is the developing more intentionality in how we communicate with others is a 24/7 commitment. 

The driving force that shapes intentional communication is the way the people in it communicate.

Let’s face it, most of the communication that takes place in and around work is far from being intentional.  Much of it is off the cuff, abbreviated, lazy, habituated and based on unexamined personal expectations and assumptions.  A great deal of the communication that happens around work is ineffective. And most people would agree that we need effective communication to work optimally.

So – why don’t we experience more effective or intentional communication in the workplace? 

First, let’s get back to exploring what makes communication intentional.  We define intentional as something done with intention or on purpose.   It is communication that we are consciously aware of. 

It implies that we are speaking with awareness of our purpose AND it’s effects on others.  (Some of you are probably thinking – well that is obvious, isn’t it?)   We’ll step out on a limb and say – while it may be obvious – conscious communication is pretty rare – especially in the pressure-laden environment of work.

Imagine you are at work (juggling thoughts, feelings and actions, which most of us are not consciously aware of in the moment) the phone rings and it is (Tom).  You have expected some information from him that you need to finish a report.

We’ll add to this scenario that you are not particularly fond of Tom.  You pick up the phone only to learn he still does not have the information you want and is calling to explain why.

Boom – if you are like most of us, you are triggered emotionally.

Given a situation like this – how do you communicate?

 What starts running through your mind at this point?   

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

 “This really is going to screw up my schedule.”

“I’ll never finish in time now.”

“How could he wait till the last-minute and be so inconsiderate.”

If this is an example of your internal dialogue, these thoughts, unchecked, will determine how you will respond.

Without an immediate internal adjustment, it is likely that you will say something you will regret later.   And if your words don’t betray you, your body language will tell some truth about what is really on your mind.  After all, we cannot NOT communicate.  Everything we say, do and don’t do – communicates.

The plain fact is that internal scripts are always going through our minds. They drive our feelings and consequently, our communication. Problem is they run on auto-pilot.  Often we let our internal dialogues masquerade as our spontaneous thoughts.  Too bad we can’t hit the delete button for the old unwanted files in our heads!

Unless we bring our awareness to those thoughts we run the risk of sloppy, unintended communication.  Another result is that we really can’t be fully present in any communication if our minds are running old software and the next to-do list.We can come across to others as poor listeners, uninterested and inauthentic.

We may not believe that our lack of real presence is registering with others (after all aren’t they running their own internal narratives?) but people will often have a surprising list of the great, good and lousy communicators they deal with when asked.

Which list are you on with your colleagues? More important, which list do you WANT to be on?

Caring is a big part of your communication dynamic.  If you don’t care about how you communicate and how you are perceived as a communicator, you won’t have the motivation to elevate your skills.  If you want to change the way you communicate but don’t seem to be able to – it’s time to ask:

What in me is allowing this to continue? 

It’s a great question (one that you can apply to many other situations where you may feel at an impasse).

It implies, of course, that the responsibility for your end of the communication is up to you – and only you.

The “Basics” of Intentional Communication:

  • Think before you speak.  In other words, practice developing mindfulness about what you say, when you say it and why.
  • Develop skill around your body language habits, especially tone of voice. This is a biggie – and the “wrong” tone of voice (as perceived by the recipient in your communication) can send a message south instantaneously.
  • Watch your words.  While body language conveys most of your communication, words still matter.
  • Notice what you are feeling in all of your communications.  Are your emotional responses appropriate to the context of the communication you are having in the present or are you dragging some historic emotional baggage into the moment?

In many ways, skillful communicating is simple, but far from easy.  It takes a lot of conscious control to break crusty old habits. Often our emotions (which have been habituated as well) don’t easily bend to our new intentions.  It is often much more comfortable to slide back into the old behaviors.

Most of us were not given the tools of good communication.  We learned through the conditioning of our role models. How good were they?  Intentional communication is an art form.  It starts with thought and is grown to habit through practice. That’s the hard part.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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 related articles: 5 Practices for More Mindful Communication  Conscious Communication: It’s All About US, Is it Me? Coping with Indirect Communication 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013 2:08 pm

    Wow! I can’t believe it’s been 4 years, Louise. Congratulations. It’s been a real delight following you.

    And congratulations on yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I love the question “What in me is allowing this to continue?” So useful. So to the point.

    All good things as you begin year 5!

    • December 13, 2013 8:55 am

      Hi Ronnie

      Yes, it has! And I so appreciate your inspiration and support of the blog. You picked up on what I think is THE key question whenever our behavior does not match our intentions – “What in me is allowing this to continue?” In all my self-work I can say it is always about unmet needs. So being “intentional” is very much connected
      to our ability to identify our needs – have a loving chat with them so to speak – and feelings and behavior often follow as we truly intend.

      Thanks again,

  2. December 12, 2013 11:34 pm

    I have written a little booklet about relationship with Mike Muhney; ‘Who’s in Your Orbit’.

    While I agree on the importance of communication I do not see a benefit in controlling ones emotions. That is a path to neurosis …

    I have slightly different principles of communication:

    1) What I say is not what I mean and is not what the other understands.
    2) Therefore speak sparsely and ask for feedback and confirmation.
    3) Be congruent: You words must match your feelings and body language.
    4) Listen actively – give room and time – and give feedback too.
    5) Honest communication starts with being honest about yourself.
    6) The best communication is person to person – not email, Facebook or Twitter.

    The key is that you cannot control your emotions or hide them. If you try to be mindful you come across as fake. (Salesman smile …) The same is true about body language. While it helps to think about words and body language as it also changes how you feel, it is much better to try and change how you feel before you communicate. If you can’t, be honest about it. ‘I tried to calm down before we meet, but I couldn’t because …’

    We prefer honesty over politeness and we take what someone says with uncontrolled emotion a lot more seriously than the most polished speech of a politician. Emotion is the only truth we have and we should share it to communicate effectively. That does not mean that it is ok to be hurtful. If you are honest about how you feel then there is no need to lash out. It is ok to start with ‘I am angry (upset, troubled, …) because …’ If the other person is truly the cause then let it be known. If you are honest that you are upset and explain why and the other is not the cause, your conversation is up to a great start because you will feel better immediately. If you do not want to divulge the cause, then the same is true because it is important to let the other know that they are not the cause.

    That is even better if you are the cause of some problems and you admit it. You come late to a meeting … ‘I am sorry that I caused all of you a delay.’ If you are not sorry, don’t say it. I often say …’ I apologize for being late but you know me, I am always late no matter how hard I try.’ Admitting to a fault or quirk honestly will win people over. It makes us human.

    I propose that conscious control of your communication will cause you more problems as you won’t be taken seriously. Start the communication with an honest statement about yourself even if not part of the subject and then ASK a personal question of interest. ‘How are you?’ makes only sense if you really want to know. If you can, bring up a personal detail from your last meeting as that will show your interest.

    The rest is to listen well and ask questions rather than make statements. Easy …

    • December 13, 2013 9:13 am

      Hi Max,

      Thanks for your comments.

      The heart of all of my work is to promote the power and value of emotions. I’ve often written about the value of all emotions as an expression of our internal truths. As you know the literature is strewn with references to negative and bad emotions which I believe do a great disservice to us all.

      Conscious communication – and the conscious awareness of emotions is to me, the opposite of control. I equate control with repression and the neuroscience is clear that we cannot suppress emotions. However, as you say while expressing certain feelings, it is not OK to be hurtful. I believe that the suffering and dysfunction of many workplaces (families, relationships) is due to the repression of honest emotional expression.

      In my definition, mindfulness is not the experience of being simply polite. When we are acting mindfully we are engaged in deep self-awareness of thoughts, feelings and actions and their impact on those around us.


  3. March 1, 2014 12:50 am

    Hi, very good blog. I really enjoyed it and i think it really helps others regarding communication issues.


  1. Intentional Communication – terrimurphyspeaks

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