Recently, in the course of a branding project, a client made what I believe to be a very profound comment:
“We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by their actions.”
Read it again.
It’s so true and yet so easy to miss.
Many years ago, my father-in-law was in Italy. At a popular tourist site, a Japanese couple approaches him and using hand gestures, points to their camera, to my father-in-law and then to themselves. My father-in-law points to the camera, points to himself and then back to them. The Japanese couple nods enthusiastically. My father-in-law nods enthusiastically. He even bows to them. They bow back.
The Japanese couple then step over to be in front of the monument they want in their picture. But when they turn around, they are horrified to see my father-in-law casually walking away with their camera around his neck, acting as if he’s just received a wonderful new gift.
The Japanese couple chases him down and apologetically tries to explain in Japanese that they weren’t giving him the camera but simply asking him to take their picture. My father-in-law cannot understand their words, but after allowing for a moment of extreme awkwardness, he laughs and, in words they cannot understand but in a tone they do, explains that he was merely joking. He then takes their picture, returns their camera and both parties leave smiling because of the encounter.
That’s a fun example of how one party knew their own intentions and assumed the other party did as well. And in reality, the other party, my father-in-law, did understand the other’s intentions. He just wanted to point out playfully how we all make certain assumptions.
His example illustrates how in foreign cultures, people have even less of an ability to understand our internal intentions. All they can go on is our actions.
The same applies even at home. The difference is that once others get to know us well, they have a better sense of our values and intentions. Still, it’s a great quote and principle to remember anywhere since it explains why people respond to us differently than we think they will.
But let’s take it one step further: What if we turned it around?
What if we judged ourselves by our actions, not just on what we thought about doing? What if I said those encouraging words rather than just thinking them? Thanked the person with a small note or gift rather than assuming they knew my appreciation? Smiled and nodded in a conversation to let the other person know I was paying attention?
What if we judged others by what they intended? Can’t do that because you can’t read their minds? True. But maybe, it might cause us to go deeper with others, listen more closely to better understand them…and their intentions.
You don’t have to wait for a trip to try it. Just be aware of what you actually do. Take a week – or even one day – to really pay attention to your actions. See if what you do matches what you deep down believe.
Try it. I’ll do the same. Then let me know what happens. Not what you think might happen or what you’d like to have happen. What actually occurs when your actions match your deeper intentions.