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I Know Why You Hurt Me

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    Motivation matters to us. A lot. In fact, if we don’t know why someone has acted as they have, we’ll just go ahead and make it up! Learn why this gets us into trouble, and what we can do about it.


    I Know Why You Hurt Me

    In a tiny restaurant in Boston’s North End, my sister Carol and her husband are waiting for their table. No one is seating them.

    When she connects with the harried host after a few minutes, he assures her they can honor her reservation. He points out their table and says: “Look, they are almost done.”

    But the table’s occupants show no sign of leaving. Their check is paid, but they appear to be holding court, with wait staff and even other patrons visiting their table and talking.

    A full hour later, my sister, red-faced, utterly frustrated, convinced that the “selfish” patrons are taking advantage of the situation, approaches the host again.

    Before she can speak he pulls her aside, saying: “See the woman at the table. She is a regular here. She was at the finish line during the marathon bombing. She lost a leg. This is her first time back at the restaurant, so it’s kind of hard to ask her to leave. I’m so sorry.”

    In less than a minute, my sister’s annoyance dissipates.

    Carol had made a common mistake.

    Because she was hurt or in any way inconvenienced by someone’s actions, she assumed they intended to hurt her.

    She conflated impact—the effect the bombing survivor’s actions had upon her—with intent—her motivation for acting as she did.

    We all do this. In an instant, we ask and reflexively answer the question “Why did you hurt me?” with “Because you wanted to!”

    • Our colleague asks someone else to join his project team, and we assume he is blocking our career advancement.
    • Our client begins to work with a competitor, and we assume that they are disappointed in us and sending us a message.
    • Our boss appears to be watching us carefully, and we assume she doesn’t have confidence in our work.

    In any situation, some information we know with confidence: our own intentions, and the impact of their actions upon us.

    But other information we simply don’t. Our counterpart’s intentions are invisible.

    The best practice is to pause, acknowledge this distinction, and act accordingly: that is, explain to our counterpart what we do know, and instead of making assumptions, ask them about what we don’t.

    We can’t change what’s already happened, of course, but knowing other’s motivations truly makes a difference.

    Once Carol understood the bombing survivor’s intentions, the wait didn’t seem as bad. The impact changed!

    Separating intent from impact often opens a path for us to more effectively advocate for what we want.

14 responses to I Know Why You Hurt Me

  1. Stu Summer says:


    This is truly a “great pond” story. We are all in the same pond. Some of us learn to see from a deeper (or higher) perspective. Your video helps! Thank you!

    1. Richard Cohen says:

      Yes. This is about a subset: the assumptions we make about other peoples’ motivations. Thanks for writing Stephen.

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