the dangers of diagnosing intention

Today a kid in one of my daughter's classes asked the teacher to help him understand a homework problem. The teacher refused, saying, "Why should I help you when you don't even care enough to remember to bring your book to class?" (No wonder so many kids hate school!)

This teacher diagnosed his student's intention, and then responded based upon his unverified assumption, effectively shutting down all further communication. (Also, might I add, shutting down an opportunity for learning!)

Parents do the same thing to their kids when they say things like:

You just want attention.
You think you can have everything your way.
You are trying to get out of taking responsibility.

And adults do it to each other as well:

If I was important to you, you would pick me up at the airport.
If he really wanted this to work out, he wouldn't have walked away.
She's trying to go behind my back.

Could there be any reason other than 'not caring' when a student forgets his book? I can think of a whole bunch of possibilities. Maybe his parents were arguing this morning and he was so stressed out about the thought that they could get divorced that he left without his backpack.

Maybe he was up all night caring for a sick little sister and barely woke up in time to dash for the bus.

Maybe he works the late shift so he can contribute financially to his family.

And yes, maybe he really doesn't care, but then why was he asking his teacher for help understanding a homework problem?

What actually led to the forgotten book really doesn't matter, though. What concerns me is that when we spend time and energy trying to diagnose someone else's motivation or intention, we are tethering our attention to the past, and missing the opportunity to deal with the situation that is in front of us right now.

If you just gotta diagnose intention, then see if you can come up with something that gives the other person the benefit of the doubt. You'll feel much better, and are more likely to preserve the relationship that way.

But even better would be to deal with what is happening right now. The teacher above might have said, "I'll need to refer to the textbook to help you understand this, and I see you don't have one. What can we do about that?" My daughter was right next to him, and would happily have shared her book. Besides, she also needed help with that problem!

The dangers of diagnosing intention are many. The temporary satisfaction of 'feeling justified and right' comes at the expense of connection, communication, and clarity.

The Work of Byron Katie includes an elegant question that can disrupt this cycle. If you notice you have diagnosed someone's intention, ask yourself, "Can I absolutely know that is true?" If you are honest, the answer will almost always be NO. This awareness makes it easier to focus your attention on finding a solution in the present moment instead.