Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Intention Invention"

I’ve recently been recommending a book entitled “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project ( It’s an excellent source of information about how difficult conversations can go bad and how we can approach them to help them turn out more constructively. One of the ideas in “Difficult Conversations” that I find very useful is, “intention invention.” By “intention invention,” the authors mean that we make up reasons why we think someone we’re having a conflict with is doing whatever they’re doing, when we don’t really know why they’re doing it at all.

Here’s an example: Johnny, a fifth grader, isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind in class. His teacher thinks that his parents don’t care about his homework, or how he is doing in school. His parents think that his teacher doesn’t like Johnny and doesn’t understand how to make a relationship with him so he’ll want to do her assignments. In fact, neither the teacher nor the parents know what the others’ intentions are, and they are just making up their ideas about each other.

“Intention invention” is a great phrase, because it combines several complex ideas into one that is readily understandable at an everyday level. In fact, you don’t need to know any more about it than that, to use it. If you are in a conflict discussion with someone who accuses you of bad motivation, you don't have to accept it, but can say that their impression of why you're doing it doesn't fit how you actually feel, and "reframe" the conversation (another key idea in "Difficult Conversations") back to the issue under discussion. And, if you start to impose bad motivation on the other person, you can catch yourself at it, let it go, and get back to the conversation. But I can’t help but be interested in the implications for what "intention invention" means about our mental functioning.

It seems to me that there are at least three rather complicated ideas underlying “intention invention:”

1. The idea of “attribution,” which, in cognitive psychology, means why we think someone is doing something and the relationship between that and how we feel about them. For example, if I’m driving my car and am stopped at a stop sign, waiting for a teenager to cross the street, and he’s walking very slowly while talking on his cellphone, completely oblivious of the drivers who are waiting for him to get across, I might get annoyed if I think he’s a narcissistic, spoiled, entitled brat without an ounce of awareness of what’s going on around him or concern about how his behavior is affecting others. However, if I happen to know that his mother had surgery last week for a brain tumor, and expect that he’s probably numb and in shock from that, I might be grateful that he has people to talk with, for support or just ordinary relationship in the midst of his crisis, and not be annoyed at all. In either case, he’s doing the same thing, but how I react to it depends on why I think he’s doing it. That’s attribution.

2. The idea of “projective identification” in psychoanalytic psychology. This is a very complicated idea, and something of a moving target in that different analytic writers have used it to refer to somewhat different behaviors. My teacher on this subject, psychiatrist Harold Balikov, described it as the way we react to another person because of what we feel they’re thinking about us, when we are, in fact, projecting that onto them in the first place.

Here’s an example from therapy: a client feels that his therapist doesn’t want to hear him talking about his dissatisfaction with his marriage. When he was a child, his mother was unwilling to listen to his feelings or needs. She wanted him to be conventional, successful, and happy, and whenever he wasn’t she responded with ridicule and scolding. Then he’d suppress his dissatisfaction and unhappiness and put on a happy face in order to bond with his mother, who had a strong personality and was the most powerful person in his life for many years. The client doesn’t say, “I feel like I need to project a conventional, successful and happy image to my therapist, even though that doesn’t reflect how I really feel.” Neither does he say, “I’m reluctant to talk about my marital problems with my therapist because of the way my mother treated me when I was growing up.” He says, “I know you don’t want me to talk about how unhappy I am in my marriage.” That’s projective identification.

3. Multiple motivation: The “Difficult Conversation” authors emphasize that most of what we do has multiple motivational sources. In the example of Johnny and his teacher and parents, Johnny may be falling behind in his homework because he’s being picked on by other kids, and because he feels the teacher doesn’t like him, and because he finds the work difficult, and because he'd rather have fun after school than do homework, and because he can get his parents to let him get away with it, and because he feels more special and influential in his family when he does. His teacher and parents have similar multiple motivations contributing to their own perceptions, feelings, and attributions. So it’s generally a mistake to think that someone we’re in a conflict with is doing something for only one reason, and that we know what it is. Equally, we ourselves are not usually motivated by a single value or goal; we are just as subject to multiple motivations as anyone else. In fact, we are almost always operating on the basis of a mixture of motivations.

So, in a difficult conversation, the important issue is not why we think the other person is doing what she’s doing, but what the consequences are. In our example about Johnny, the key issue is that he isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind. If his parents and teachers get into an argument about each other’s motivations (Parent: “Why don’t you care about my son?” Teacher: “Why don’t you care about your son?”), it won’t help solve the problem. They need to face the fact that Johnny isn’t doing his homework and is falling behind, and start finding ways to work together to help him get back on track.

(Note: A longer article about “Difficult Conversations” and other methods of having the necessary difficult conversations of life with less damage and more benefit will be posted shortly on by website, “Psychologist At Large,”

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