intent in communicationThink about how it feels when you are misunderstood after communicating with someone. None of the emotions are positive, and none of the outcomes are likely very good for the communication and perhaps the relationship. Misunderstandings can come directly from our words. But more often, the root of misunderstanding is a disconnect between the sender’s intent and the receiver’s perception of that intent. When we think about it this way, it is easy to see why intent in communication is critical.

What They Hear is What Matters

Perhaps the biggest challenge with communication is that our messages are being translated by the other person. So even when we get the words, tone of voice, and body language right, our messages might still be misinterpreted. In the end, it isn’t what we say, it is what people hear and translate that matters most.

Author Ken Liu said it this way: Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

One way to make it a bit less miraculous, or at least improve your odds in a successful translation, is to remember the importance of intent in communication. I think about it this way: Intent is the first thing people hear.

If we get our intention right, and it is clear to the other person, it creates a context for them to translate the rest of our message more effectively.

Getting Your Intention Clear

Before your intention can be clear to someone else, we must make it clear to ourselves. Generally, we are pretty good at this if we are delivering message of high importance – a speech, a presentation, and the like. But too often, we don’t stop and think about it in our everyday communications – like emails, instant messages, text messages, and one-on-one conversations.

The fewer communication clues and cues we have, the easier messages can be misinterpreted. Think about the number of emails or text messages that go…sideways. This makes intention even more important. What do we need to do to make sure we are clear ourselves?

Before you start to type or ask a question, think about your intention. Are you trying to:

  • Inform?
  • Persuade?
  • Express emotions or empathy?
  • Build a relationship or enhance trust?

With your goal in your mind, you will likely pick different words or use a different tone or pace. And it is in the totality of your communication that people hear your intention and dial in their translation.

Communicating it Clearly

Now that you realize (or are reminded) how important intent is in communication, let’s look at some ways you can make it clearer as you communicate. You can:

  • State your intention. “The reason I am reaching out to you is…”
  • Follow up. Check to see if your intention was understood. “Does that make sense?”
  • Slow down. Often, speed of response leads us to assume people know where we are headed.
  • Reconfirm context. “I’ve been thinking about our conversation about…”
  • Think about the other person. Recognize that their perspective might be different than yours, so adjust the communication to meet their style. That will help them get your intention more effectively.

While we communicate all day, every day, it is still hard to do it effectively. When we use the tool of a clear intent for our communications, we improve our odds of more successful outcomes more often.


Clear communication is one of the keys to successful work results and working relationships. If you want to explore the connection between communication and successful teams and culture, check out our book, The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team For Everyone’s Success. Learn more, get a sample chapter, and order a copy for yourself and your team members.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}