Action Versus Intention: When Context Is Everything

It happens in the car, at work, at home, when we're out and about. We all do it. We judge. We judge ourselves and we judge others.

We judge everything we and others do, say and opine. It might be just for an instant, but we still do it. 

To judge is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to observe and evaluate what’s around us. It’s how we learn, how we decide what we like or don’t like and it’s also how we evaluate opportunities and risks.

Our judgment is a great asset, especially when it’s been cultivated into good judgment and common sense.

But even a great asset can cause us trouble from time to time.

Context Is Everything

For as long as I can remember “context is everything” has been one of my favourite expressions. It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have all the information to understand what’s going on when something just doesn’t seem right or isn’t clear. It invites us to question, to pursue our curiosity when we’re confused by something or simply want to understand it better.

And I appreciated it even more when a speaker introduced me to the concept of “action versus intention.” (I wish I could remember my original source, though I’ve heard it a number of times since.)

Action Versus Intention

The way it was presented to me is that we judge others’ actions based on the actions alone. We can only witness what they say or do but we don’t know what drove them to do it. 

We’re judging their behavior without understanding their why.

On the other hand, we have a pretty good idea of why we behave the way we do. We know what lead up to it, what’s influencing us now or what drove us to act a given way in a past event. You could say we have full disclosure when it comes to what we do and why.

That means, in effect, that we judge ourselves based on our intentions but that we judge others based on their actions.

Stacking the Deck

By judging ourselves based on our intentions and judging others based on their actions, we are really stacking the deck in our favour and then some!

How can there possibly be a fair comparison between our behaviour and how it compares to that of others? It sets the bar artificially low, doesn’t it? Not sure what I mean? Let me explain with a story you may have heard before:

A man is riding on a subway with his two children. They're running around in the aisle, jumping on the seats, swinging on the handles and the poles, and driving the other passengers a bit crazy. It should be no surprise to say that he’s getting dirty looks from just about everyone around him as they wonder why he isn't tending to them. 
Finally, a woman looks at him and asks why he’s not minding his children. He looks up, slowly emerging from his stupor as he realizes she’s asked him a question. He apologizes, explaining that he and his children are on their way home from the hospital, his wife having just passed away.
Doubt is not the enemy of justice; overconfidence is.
— Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)", p. 152.

Without the additional context, it’s easy to believe that he’s an uncaring passenger and parent. It’s easy to judge harshly and swiftly. One simple question flipped our attitude from intolerance to acceptance and our emotion from contempt to sympathy. 

This idea of how I judge myself versus how I judge others others has gradually permeated most of my interactions and, though I still have some way to go, it feels wonderful.

[In relationships,] while happy partners are giving each other the benefit of the doubt, unhappy partners are doing just the opposite.
— Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)", p. 170.

It makes me a happier and more patient driver, spouse, friend, business owner, coach, customer, speaker and person in general. And I’m more content, not only because I’ve learned to give the benefit of the doubt and ask questions when I can, but because I realize that others don’t have context for my own behaviour and that I have to cut them some slack when they react negatively to something I've said, written or done. Of course, if I have the chance—and it’s appropriate and I want to—I attempt to offer the context they need to understand my why.

This increased awareness has also had a humbling effect because, when as a rule I give everyone the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise, it knocks me off my pedestal. I can’t always assume my thoughts, words and actions would be or are more appropriate than anyone else's. To be sure of that, I would have to know the whole story.

And often, that is nearly impossible. 

Image credit/copyright: Nat_Stocker /

This post contains an affiliate link to Purchases made via these links help support the F2P blog. It doesn't cost you anything and helps cover ongoing expenses associated with maintaining this blog. Thank you for your support.