Intention vs Perception, and How to Handle Them


We have all been on either side of this issue at one time or another: we did or said something with the best of intentions, but it was perceived in a completely different way. Or when someone has said something that we perceived to be totally disrespectful, yet they didn’t mean it that way at all. So, what is the best way to handle a situation where the intention is different than the perception?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, intention is “a determination to act in a certain way; what one intends to do or bring about”. In other words, it is the purpose behind a person’s words or actions. Regardless of how much thought, or lack thereof, someone puts into their words or actions, their intention is what they are trying to communicate, do, or achieve.

Webster’s defines perception as “the act of perceiving”, and to perceive means “to attain awareness or understanding; to regard as being such; to become aware of through the senses”. In other words, perception is how words or actions are understood or interpreted. The way a person perceives something is based on several things, including predetermined or surrounding factors, the environment, amount of knowledge of the subject and speaker, personal feelings and opinions, mood, clarity of communication, attitude, and body language. Basically, anything and everything can effect the way something is perceived.

When the intention and the perception do not match it is generally considered a miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation. Usually this kind of mismatch is caused due to a lack of complete and/or clear communication. If there is a big project that a few people are working on, and a lack of clear communication as to who is doing what, it is very likely that there will be things that go undone or unfinished. Each person in the group thinks or perceives one of the other two are handling it. The intention of the group was to complete and present a fantastic project, however the perception is that they are unorganized. Another example is when a person overhears, sees, or is told about only part of a conversation. Since they missed the entire exchange it is highly unlikely they will correctly perceive the original intent or the whole picture.

Another way intention and perception end up not matching is when the proposed intention is not completed and therefore the perception is affected; for example, when someone tells you they are going to take care of something, but never does. They may apologize and explain that they had intended to get to it, but didn’t for whatever reason. The first time this happens the perception might be that they got busy or forgot. If this happens over and over, the perception might change to this person doesn’t keep their word and is not trustworthy.

A third way intention and perception end up on opposing sides has to do with how something is communicated. This is probably the most common example, especially during a conversation. A worker may intend to express frustration to their supervisor, but depending on how that frustration is communicated (verbally and physically) they might be perceived as being disrespectful or insubordinate. Another example is someone offering advice to another person, but depending on how that advice is communicated (verbally and physically) it might be perceived as condescending or disrespectful.

Another key in how something is communicated is ensuring the words and the actions match. It is common knowledge among parents and caregivers that when it comes to discipline, no must mean no and yes must mean yes. If a child is given warning after warning, but never any consequences, they will continue with the behavior, if not worse. The intention is to correct the inappropriate behavior, but the perception is that the person providing the care doesn’t really mean it.

From these few examples it is clear that intention and perception can very easily differ. So, what is the best way to handle a situation when this has become the case? One way is to try to stop it before it starts. It is very important to think before, during, and after about who is involved, the environment in which the conversation or exchange is taking place, other people’s feelings, and what and how you intend to come across. During a conversation, it is always best to ask questions and repeat back what was heard. This is a great technique to help people stay on the same page and avoid miscommunications. If despite best efforts, a misperception still results, the person that was misunderstood should try again, possibly in a different way, to communicate their intended message.

When miscommunication occurs should either side apologize, and if so, which? Neither the intender nor the perceiver should necessarily apologize for any wrongdoing, unless there was some. However, an apology for not communicating clearly in the first place might be a good thing, especially if the perceiver is left feeling hurt, disrespected, angry, or inconvenienced; or if they have or will base important decisions upon the wrong perception. For the same reasons, an apology for not understanding or properly perceiving something could be a good thing. Even if neither side feels they were responsible for the misperception, there should at least be an attempt made to clear the air and resolve the situation.

Relationships and communication can be tricky. You never know when you will find yourself in the middle of an intention vs. perception dilemma. Regardless of which side you find yourself on, remember to think before you speak, ask questions, repeat back, apologize (if necessary) and try again. Taking steps to correct a situation as soon as possible will have a much more positive affect on not only the outcome, but on all persons involved.

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