Maria has her head down, working, when she hears a knock on the door.

She looks up. It’s her boss, Bill, who asks to come in. Immediately she thinks to herself, Here he comes again with another last-minute request. Why is he always picking on me? Why doesn’t he go to Brianna or Dewayne? I don’t think he likes me.”

As he walks in the office, Bill notices her facial expression but doesn’t react. Instead, he delivers his message as quickly as possible: “You know that big interdepartmental meeting tomorrow? I need you to be there to represent our team.”

Maria says, “No problem.” But inside, she’s seething, and it shows. The meeting will throw off her entire day, and she’ll be late picking up the kids. Again.

Bill knows none of this. As he walks away, he thinks to himself, Why does she always make things so difficult? She’s so good at what she does — and this is an honor. But she never seems receptive when I need her to do something.

Contained in this exchange is something incredibly common in the workplace … and all of life.

Both Maria and Bill read intent into the exchange and never ask the other person if they’re getting it right.

When we read intent into a situation, it means we believe we understand the other person’s motives. And of course, we always know best, right? Scripture reminds us that it’s not our job to determine other people’s motives: “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 16:2).

The reality is, we can’t possibly know why someone did or said something. Because of that, reading intent into any exchange will never help — and it’s no way to build a healthy relationship.

The tragedy is, neither Bill nor Maria understood the situation.

Bill isn’t picking on Maria. He respects her abilities and thinks she’s talented. He comes to her for more difficult challenges, times of crisis, or moments he needs someone who can think “big picture.”

Maria isn’t trying to make things difficult, but her frustration shows when someone makes a last-minute change to her schedule. She wants to plan things out so she can get her work done in time to leave and pick up her children.

When you catch yourself reading intent into someone’s actions, words, or demeanor, stop. Instead, ask them about it. Asking will help you learn the other person’s intent or meaning. And it’s effective whether you’re at work, at home, or with friends.

You might ask:

  • “Did I hear you say…?”
  • “Can you give me the reasoning behind…?”
  • “I don’t know that I understood what you said. Could you go over it again?”
  • “Why do you think I did that?

Then, make sure you listen to what the other person says. Contained in the answer may be an opportunity for a conversation and a better relationship.

If either Maria or Bill had asked a question about intent, they would have learned about each other and strengthened their working relationship. Bill may have discovered that Maria needs more advanced notice. Maria would have found out how much Bill respects her.

As you move forward in your personal and professional life, remember not to read intent into someone else’s actions. Assume the good.

When in doubt, ask!