Education Hour: Strengthening Healthy Intentions and Attention

Most of this content comes from a course on “Mindful Communication” taught by Oren Jay Safer. Much of it will be in his book, Say What You Mean, which will be released in December.

Intention is the motivation or inner quality of heart behind our words and actions. Where we’re coming from in a dialogue is going to determine where things go.  We can say the same words with very different intentions.

Intention is not: I want to get there on time. That’s a goal. Intention is where we are coming from inside, rather than a specific outcome or goal. Our intention determines the way the conversation is going to go — perhaps even more than the actual words I’m using. There’s a big difference in the quality of my conversation with my husband when we are in conflict if I come into the conversation with an intention of trying to restore connection between us than when I come into the conversation with an intention of blaming him or judging him or “making him see the light.”  If our intention is off, other people feel it. They can tell if we are coming in with an intention that’s perhaps unconsciously set on blame or judgement or control or subtle coercion or defensiveness. They can also feel it if we come into a conversation with the intention to understand or another healthy intention like openness or collaboration or patience.

Oren says that, in his experience,the single most powerful and transformative intention in conversation is to understand. Because that’s really the fundamental thing we’re trying to do when we communicate. We communicate to meet needs. We can’t meet those needs unless we actually understand each other. 

This intention to understand has two main components:

  • Curiosity — it’s about not knowing. It’s humble. We recognize what we don’t know. In order to be curious, we have to be willing to not know rather than assume that we know what’s going on with you or the situation. It also demands patience, because it takes time to get to know and to understand.
  • Care — goodwill in the heart. If we care about something or someone, we pay attention to them. We are also open to being affected.  I’m slowing down and making space for you. I’m willing to give you my attention and be affected by what you say. 

It’s especially hard to stick with the intention of curiosity and care when we are getting triggered in a conversation. Then, we might revert to blame or judgement. Sometimes, our underlying view of conflict or disagreement comes into play.  So, if we get threatened and start getting angry in a conversation, we may feel:

  • There’s a problem, something has gone wrong. If this is the case, I may have the conscious or unconscious intention, then, to blame or judge. Joanna said this really well during her sermon last week:  When she gets angry, she used to think it was because someone was doing something wrong, and they need to stop what they are doing.   Can we come from the intention of curiosity instead? Once, I got mad at Jerome for saying something to Patrick that I thought was insensitive, and I came in like the mother bear to set him right and protect my son. But I hadn’t heard the first part of their conversation. And after he explained the context to me, it made sense why he had said that “insensitive” thing. Had I come from an intention of curiosity (What were you and Patrick talking about?) instead of blame and protect, I would have been able to figure that out without getting mad at Jerome.
  • Someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose. When we come from this view, our intent may be to protect and defend. Can we choose instead to come from an intent of collaboration? 
  • People as objects. None of this we see others as objects, but often in conflict, we do. We think: You’re in my way; you’re an obstacle to getting what I want. Then, our conscious or unconscious intent may be to coerce and manipulate. Can we come from care instead, from a real respect for the other person?

Now, let’s turn to talking about attention. How we view things informs where we’re coming from. There’s a view we can cultivate that can help us get curious. This is about focussing our attention on needs. 

Everything we do as people, we do to meet a need. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? There’s lots of ways to express our different needs. But the main thing to remember is that: We don’t do anything, unless we are trying to meet a need.

When we view things in this way, it tends to open the heart. Everyone is just trying to get by; it tends to emphasize our commonalities over our differences.  We can learn to see all of our actions and behaviors through this lens of longing. And: We’re not always wise about meeting our needs. We don’t always employ a good strategy.

That’s something that’s really important to remember:  Needs are different from strategies. A strategy is about what we want. Like: I want to go to the movies; I want to take a class; I want some new clothes. Those are strategies. Needs are about why. Why do I want to go to the movies? I want to relax. I want to learn something. I want to be entertained. Why do I want new clothes? I want to look professional. I want to connect to people, maybe to be seen as alluring. 

To summarize: Everything we do, we do to get a need; this view helps us get curious. It’s a way to help us remember the intention to understand. There’s something that matters to this person, some need they are trying to meet; what is that They are not just trying to be mean or be a jerk.


Guided Meditation on Setting Intentions in Conversation

The intention to understand is not the only intention. Perhaps your intention is to be patient. Or to stay grounded. Or to stretch to express yourself truthfully in a conversation. We can consciously chose where we are coming from. 

So, think about a specific relationship or conversation. Try not to pick the most difficult or charged one, but a relationship where you want to bring a more clear, helpful intention to your conversation. What would be a helpful intention? If I could choose where I was coming from inside, what would be most helpful in this relationship or this conversation with this person? It could be the intention to understand, but it could be something else like patience, groundedness, being honest or authentic, to listen well, feel compassion, to collaborate. If you’ve had more than one idea, narrow it down to one, to whatever feels strongest or most clear. Or just choose.  Whatever that intention is, summarize it in a word or phrase and say that to yourself silently. 

Now, see if there is anywhere in your body that you feel some connection with this intention. How do you know this is important to you? What does patience feel like? See if there’s any sense in your body that you can get (and you might not get any sense of this — that’s okay!). 

Next, see if you can invite some kind of an image that represents this intention to you. Invite that more poetic side of our consciousness: What image could represent this intention? What person, place, thing, event? For example, if I’m thinking about patience, I might an image of the ocean. 

At this point, there is the intention, there might be some sensation in your body, there might be an image. We’re exploring all the different ways this intention lives in you. You may only have one of them, and that’s okay. 

See if you can bring together the intention, any feeling in your body and the image and see if you can dwell in your experience of this intention — what it feels like to come from this place or care or understanding or authenticity. Take a 3D mental snapshot of this place inside and open your eyes. 


At the beginning of the day, recollect the intention you came up with during the guided meditation, hold it in your mind/body and then set an intention to come back to this during one conversation during the day.

In exploring the intention to understand, see — in a conversation — if you can maintain curiosity about someone and where they are coming from by focussing your attention on their needs. What does this person need? What matters to them?