A primary principle of acting is that your character always wants something. Everything you say comes from a place of need–to make something happen, to affect the person you’re talking to in some way.
This is true because it’s true of human interaction. When we communicate, there’s always a reason. In my coaching work, I call this “intention.”
One of the best places to see intention at work is in a testy customer service call. Let’s take this one:
Customer Service Rep: Good morning, how can I help you?
Customer: My water is turned off at the house and I need you to get it turned back on. I have a baby here—
CSR: Okay, let’s see what going on. Can I get your account number?
CSR: Thank you. Oh, okay, it looks like the water was turned off for nonpayment of the bill.
Customer: What?? I know I paid that bill! I have it right here!
CSR: Sir, our records show that bill as unpaid, so the water was turned off this morning.
Customer: Well I know that! Listen, I have a system for keeping my bills organized. This one clearly shows that I paid it.
CSR: If you’d like to pay it now over the phone, we can get it turned back on. There will be a $100 reinstatement fee.
Customer: I won’t be paying any fee. I am telling you I paid that bill. I have a baby here—have you ever tried to spend any amount of time without running water with a baby in the house? You have to turn our water back on!
CSR: Sir, when you look at your bill, what is the amount you paid?
CSR: Your most recent bill was for $87. What is the date on that bill?
Customer:…oh. I—this bill is two months old. I, uh, I guess I missed one. Shoot, I’ve never done that before!
CSR: How old is your baby?
Customer: Two months old.
The customer service rep has an overall intention; she wants to resolve the reason for the call. The customer wants to get the water turned back on. Within those big-picture intentions, though, they shift.
The customer comes in hot—he’s mad and is going to prove that what happened isn’t his fault. The rep deals with this kind of thing all day, and she’s pretty sure what happened is user error. She is going to be polite, though, and work to get to the bottom of the problem.
We see through the exchange that the customer uses several different intentions to get to his desired outcome. He appeals to her humanity by bringing up the baby. He demonstrates his responsibility when he talks about his system. He shows her he means business when he says he won’t pay the fee.
Finally, when she discovers that he did, in fact, miss a payment, his intention shifts radically. The tables have turned, and now he is trying to maintain his status despite being wrong. The rep extends an olive branch by asking how old the baby is, and offering him a way out of his bad position.
When you start looking for intention, you see it everywhere. We are always looking for an outcome when we communicate. The first big step to clearer and more effective communication is being aware of your own intentions.