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What are they doing that for?

15 Mar 16
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People do the strangest things, don’t they.

Have you ever shook your head and asked yourself, “What did they do that for?”

Maybe someone cut in front of you while you were waiting for a subway, bank or restaurant. Or maybe they said they had done something when really you knew they hadn’t. Or maybe they cheated – on their spouse, on a test or on their taxes. And let’s not even start about politicians.

You might have even used the expression, “What did you do that for?” or “Why did you do that?”

Though most of the time when I hear that expression, we don’t actually want to hear an answer!

Which is a pity since that sort of question can be really powerful! One of the most amazing questions to ask is, “What for?”

Asking “What for?” is a powerful way to get you thinking about the intention. And if you can understand their intention, you can find other – better – ways to fulfill that intention.

While asking “What did you do that for?” sounds simple, and can be simple, often people don’t really know what they are doing things for. In a sense, that is the power of asking the question, though you will also want to be careful to check that they actually answer the question. If I ask someone who smokes what they smoke for, there’s a good chance that they will tell me about how they don’t want to smoke but they are addicted. Or someone who is consistently 10 minutes late for appointments will explain that they “can’t help it”. And neither of those are answers to the question!

Mind you, that’s pretty normal. When faced with a hard question, many of us will answer an easier question that is almost the same. When it’s hard to answer “what for” but easy to answer “why”, there’s a good chance people will just give you excuses.

So listen carefully!

Intention can be used in so many ways. If I can understand my intention for a behaviour, I can find other ways to fulfill that intention – maybe that have less undesirable consequences. If I can understand the intention of my negotiating partner, I can find ways to allow us both to win from a negotiation. If I can understand what my client most wants, I can give it to them more efficiently. If I reflect upon my personal goals, relationships and behaviour patterns, you could well notice patterns, themes and habits of what you want to have and experience or what you want to avoid. And that’s a gateway into your values.

Mental Exercise

To train yourself to be more aware of your intentions, pick a behaviour, a goal or a relationship, and ask yourself, “What do I want that for?” And, if you’re game, maybe even ask yourself, “What do I want that intention for?”

Try it out and let us know what you discover.

Be well!


Now it’s important to distinguish between intention and ‘reason’: We aren’t asking “Why did you do that?” but rather, “What did you do that for?” You can probably hear the difference even as you read it. “What for” focuses on their intention while “Why” tends to get people to think about the reasons, causes and justifications.

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