The Power of Intention

Say What You Mean

An Excerpt from Say What You Mean

"I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness—on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart."
—Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg

Have you ever persevered through a challenging situation with a friend and come out the other side with more respect for one another? Or worked out a disagreement with a loved one, finding that you feel even closer, with more care and affection?

Intimacy is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us know one another. Friction can be creative and synergistic, leading to new ideas and perspectives. These kinds of conversations are characterized by very different intentions than our unconscious communication behavior.

What if there were a way to identify and support the conditions that lead to this kind of experience? A way to shift out of our habitual responses to conflict to a more helpful approach? This is one of the central questions behind Marshall Rosenberg’s development of Nonviolent Communication. In the beginning of his seminal book, he writes:

Believing that it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?1

Rosenberg grew up in Detroit in the 1940s. During that time, he witnessed the race riots in which dozens of people lost their lives. These events, and his experiences of anti-Semitism as a youngster, seeded in him a passion for understanding the roots of violence. He discovered that our thoughts and speech play a huge role in our ability to stay connected to compassion. His method of NVC comprises a systematic training of our attention—relearning how to think, speak, and listen in ways that are more conducive to peace and harmony.

Instead of getting caught in habitual narratives of blame and judgment, in NVC we learn to identify the specific observations we want to discuss, our feelings about those events, the deeper human needs from which those feelings arise, and our requests for how to move forward together. We learn to listen in the same way, sensing what’s beneath others’ words. The entire system rests upon one core theme: creating a quality of connection sufficient to meet needs.2

This isn’t about what we say but rather where we’re coming from. It’s about our intention.

When Daryl Davis Met the KKK

Daryl Davis is an African American musician and author who spent the first years of his life abroad. It wasn’t until age ten, in 1968, that he discovered people could hate him for his skin color. While marching with his all-white Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts, people threw rocks and bottles at him. The incident sparked a lifelong curiosity about human attitudes. “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?” he wondered.

Years later, after playing a gig in an all-white bar in Maryland, Davis was approached by a white man who said it was the first time he’d “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis shared that Jerry Lee Lewis was a friend of his and that Lewis had learned to play from black musicians. The two continued their conversation and over time became friends. The man eventually shared the names of local KKK leaders, whom Davis contacted and interviewed for a book he was writing.

Davis asked them about their views on various subjects and listened. At first, the Klansmen never asked Davis for his thoughts, believing he was “inferior.” However, with patient, friendly conversation and through Davis’s continual effort to create a real connection, they gradually became interested in his side of things. It was as if Davis’s own warmth and respect slowly drew forth those very qualities in them.

In the end, he formed friendships with many Klansmen whose beliefs shifted after getting to know Davis. Many left the Klan and even gave Davis their robes and hoods. Over the course of his work, Davis has convinced—through dialogue and friendship—more than two hundred members of the KKK to leave the organization.3 Daryl Davis may have never taken an NVC class, but he understands the power of intention. When we create genuine human connection, radical transformation is possible.

Enlightened Self-Interest

Intention is the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue. It shapes our verbal and nonverbal communication, directing the course of a conversation. If you take nothing else from this whole book, I hope you will take with you the importance the intention to understand, to come from curiosity and care, has in your interactions.

This intention to understand represents a fundamental, radical shift at the basis of our orientation to a dialogue. It involves weeding from our consciousness any blame, defensiveness, control, or manipulation and instead focusing on creating a quality of connection that is conducive to collaboration. Everything I share with you in this book is designed toward this end: creating more connection and understanding.

To make this shift, we need to see the limits of our habitual responses and the value of the intention to understand—its potential for transformation, creativity, and wholeness. There are two key principles that support this. The first runs through this entire book: the less blame and criticism in our words, the easier it will be for others to hear us. When someone trusts that we’re actually interested in understanding them—that we’re not manipulating things to get our way, that we’re not trying to win or prove them wrong—they can stop defending themselves and just hear what we’re saying.

Principle: The less blame and criticism, the easier it is for others to hear us.

From this perspective, it’s in our best interest to come from curiosity and care. If we’re rooted in this intention, our verbal and nonverbal communication sends the message that we’re genuinely interested, which ultimately helps create the space to hear each other and work together.

This leads to the next principle: the more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions. This seems self-evident, yet we often lose sight of this simple fact. When we comprehend the deeper reasons behind what each of us wants, we can start to collaborate.

Principle: The more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions.

We’re wired to feel joy when we give and to feel empathy in the face of suffering. Contributing to others is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. This natural impulse is like an inexhaustible well of goodwill deep within the human spirit.

Because we feel joy in giving and compassion with suffering, when we fully understand one another we want to help instinctively. If I truly understand what’s in your heart, why you want what you want, I am moved to find a way to work together. When I can help you see why something is important to me, priorities shift and there’s more space and willingness to collaborate. (Just think of a time when you initially said no to a request, only to agree later when you better understood the situation.)

This approach to conflict is at the heart of nonviolent resistance. We have more power and integrity when appealing to the humanity of our fellow beings. This was the principle underlying Gandhi’s work, the civil rights movement, and why Rosenberg named his method Nonviolent Communication. Taking this approach doesn’t mean that we are passive, that we don’t assert ourselves or take a stand for what we believe in. Cultivating the intention to understand makes us more effective by leveraging our connection to one another’s humanity.4

A Different Way of Seeing

Davis’s story, and the stories of many others who meet hatred, racism, and bigotry with love, points to a different way of viewing the world. It’s a view that Rosenberg was seeking when he asked questions about the nature of compassion and violence. It depends on our ability to look for the humanity in each other, to see beyond our disagreements to something more essential.

All human actions are attempts to meet fundamental needs. Beneath our behaviors, preferences, beliefs, and desires are certain longings for physical, relational, or spiritual needs. We all have needs for safety, belonging, connection, and empathy. We have needs for meaning, contribution, creativity, or peace.

One finds this idea across many religious, spiritual, and contemplative traditions, as well as in the behavioral and social sciences. In Buddhism, it’s put succinctly: “All beings want to be happy.” It’s the kind of wisdom that struck me as being right intuitively the first time I heard it. What happiness looks like differs from person to person, even from day to day, but at the root is an attempt to meet our needs.

Principle: Everything we do, we do to meet a need.

Remembering this perspective is one key to being able to come from curiosity and care. The view calls forth the intention. Whatever is happening, we can get curious about the deeper human needs and values beneath our words or actions. When we understand each other at the level of our needs, our similarities outweigh our differences. This, in turn, creates a generative, positive cycle of views, intentions, and experiences.

The great strength of this approach is that it’s not limited to our intimate relationships. Whether we want to enjoy time with a friend, collaborate with a coworker, or build a diverse coalition, our genuine intention to understand has the power to create or enhance connection (for its own sake and in service of meeting needs).

To employ this in conversation requires a few things. First, we need to build our capacity to come from curiosity and care. We need to really home in on what it feels like to have a genuine intention to understand so that we can bring our mind back there at will. Next, we need to train ourselves to notice when we’re operating from our habitual tendencies. Last, we learn how to find our way back to curiosity and care.

Intention Table from Say What You Mean

Coming from Curiosity and Care

Every child is born with a natural desire to understand their world. Just as we have the innate capacity to be aware, we all have the capacity to be interested. Just as we can train ourselves in presence, we can cultivate the intention to understand.

To genuinely understand something requires curiosity and care. Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means “to stand beneath.” To comprehend anything, we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and be open to new ways of seeing.

Curiosity also requires patience. Conservationist and researcher Cynthia Moss shared that it took her twenty years of observing elephants, closely studying their habits and movements, before she began to realize how complex they were.5 Such enduring patience can only arise when there is true curiosity, a deep intention to understand.

In order to be interested in something, to give attention, we also need to care. We don’t pay attention to things we don’t care about, and we don’t care about things we don’t pay attention to. This caring can be about many things. We might care about integrity, staying true to our values. We might care about peace and well-being. We might care about broadening our perspective. We might care about resolving conflict in our own lives in order to nourish hope that we can do better as a society. We might care about transforming the systems and institutions within which we live.

What’s essential is the quality of care itself, goodwill connected to the empathic sense. It includes warmth, vulnerability, and flexibility. Care means that we are open to being affected by what we learn, that we are committed to seeing the other person’s humanity, and that we are willing to include their needs in the situation rather than be rigidly fixated on getting what we want in exactly the way we want it. All of this is possible with practice.

PRACTICE: Coming from Curiosity and Care

Explore cultivating curiosity and care in conversation. Beforehand, reflect on your intention. How do you want to approach things? Where do you want to come from inside? See if you can find a genuine intention to understand the other person—their thoughts, views, feelings, or needs. How does it feel to be genuinely interested?

Try recalling this perspective when you are in conversation. What matters to this person? What do they long for or need? What is the effect when you are able to come from curiosity and care? As always, try this out in low-stakes situations at first.

Mindfulness and the Intention to Understand

Our ordinary relationship to experience is to judge and control it. Sit down and observe your own mind for a few minutes and you’ll notice these tendencies firsthand. We react to experience by moving toward what’s pleasant and away from what’s unpleasant, judging the pleasant as good and the unpleasant as bad.

Through mindfulness practice we find that this habit is not only futile but also stressful and exhausting. We waste a great deal of our energy chasing pleasure and resisting pain, trying to control things beyond our sphere of influence. The basic shift we make over and over again in formal meditation is to cultivate the intention to understand experience rather than judge or control it. The more we explore this in mindfulness practice, the more readily we can make this shift in our conversations and day-to-day lives.

PRACTICE: Observing with the Intention to Understand

Take ten minutes or more for seated mindfulness practice. Do whatever helps you to arrive: orient; take some slow, deep breaths; relax into your sitting posture.

Let your attention settle with the sensations of breathing in and breathing out, allowing your breath to be natural. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered, gently let go and bring your attention back to breathing.

Pay particular attention to when your mind reacts to experience, liking or disliking what happens. When you feel something unpleasant, do you resist it, pulling away? When you feel something pleasant, do you try to hold on to it? When thoughts come, do you grow frustrated or berate yourself? Notice how your mind judges and tries to control the flow of experience.

Each time you notice this reactivity, cultivate an intention to understand rather than to judge. Whatever is happening, can you bring some curiosity and care to the experience? Try to notice the difference between when your mind is interested in the present moment and when it is reacting—pushing or pulling, leaning forward or manipulating. Which happens automatically? Which is more peaceful?

There are many ways to cultivate the intention to understand in the midst of conversation. For me, one of the primary ways of strengthening curiosity and care has been to integrate these qualities into my daily life. Try it out for a period of time—a day, a week, or more. Anything that occurs—an email, a conversation—simply aim to understand. “What matters here—to me, to them? What can I learn from this?” The more we remember this way of looking at things and feel a sincere interest in learning, the easier it becomes to approach dialogue in this way.


1. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, 1.1. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, 1.

2. NVC encourages the practitioner to create connection sufficient to accomplish the task at hand. In personal and intimate relationships, connection can be an end in and of itself. In other arenas, connection is in service of some shared goal. We aim to create enough understanding and genuine connection to accomplish that goal. Failure to recognize this can lead to frustrating experiences in which the practitioner’s focus on connection is misattuned to their interlocutor. For example, if I ask for a glass of water, I’m not wanting empathy for my thirst!

3. Daryl Davis, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America, directed by Matt Ornstein (Los Angeles: Sound & Vision, 2015), https://accidental Daryl Davis, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America, directed by Matt Ornstein (Los Angeles: Sound & Vision, 2015), https://accidental

4. Dialogue and nonviolent resistance share the creation of the Beloved Community as their goal. Dialogue with those in power is the first request; nonviolent resistance creates pressure toward dialogue, “pushing the powerful into a moral corner” in order to change the way systems function. For more, see Kashtan, Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness, 319.

5. Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Picador, 2015), 13.


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Oren Jay SoferOren J. Sofer leads retreats and workshops on mindful communication around the United States, particularly in Insight Meditation venues, including Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, but also in educational settings, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more.

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