Why clear intentions are critical when communicating at work

30 Nov 2020

This is the first in a three-part series of articles about showing why clear intentions are critical when communicating at work, and how to make sure you show clear intent when starting a conversation. In this series you will see:

  1. An example of a conversation without clear intent.
  2. The confusion caused by unclear intent.
  3. The reasons that providing clear intent is so important.
  4. The types of intent for most work conversations.
  5. What to do if you don’t have a clear intent and just want to talk.

At the end of the three-part series, you will have learned a simple, but powerful method to ensure you have a clear intent. If you apply this method at work, your audience will always know why you are talking to them.

How our brains receive information

Whenever we receive information, it takes our brains a few moments to work out what to do with it. We try to work out if we have to answer a question if the speaker is looking for a response, whether we need to take action or make a decision, and so on.

Our brains do this all day, every day. We process information and try to work out the appropriate response. This means that when you communicate, your audience’s brains are trying to work out what to do with your message. They are doing this even before you get to the point.

The longer it takes to state the purpose of your message, the greater the chance your audience will form their own opinion of your intent. The impacts of this range from minor to severe. The audience could make an incorrect assumption. They could decide the message isn’t important or take unnecessary action.

The consequences of these responses vary depending on the situation. When you reveal your real intentions, the conversation may need to restart, and your audience will need to reprocess the information with the correct filter.

Example conversation

To help demonstrate the issues caused by unclear intent here is an example of a work conversation.

Emma closed her laptop and started to pack up her desk. She needed to be on the road in the next 15 minutes to get to the off-site strategy meeting. As she was about to leave, her colleague, Daniel, stuck his head around the door.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked. “It’s about TechCorp.”

“I’ve got a few minutes,” Emma replied, checking her watch. TechCorp was a topic in the strategy meeting, and Daniel was the main contact for their account. If something had happened that wasn’t in her notes, she would need to know about it.

“Great,” Daniel said. He stepped into her office and shook his head. “You’ll never guess what they did this time.”

“You’re right,” Emma replied. “Why don’t you fill me in.”

“They just released an improvement to their software. They can now support all the changes we want.”

“That’s great,” Emma said. A key part of their growth strategy hinged on TechCorp being able to support more data. This was exactly what she needed to know for the strategy meeting.

“Not exactly,” Daniel replied.

“What do you mean?”

“The change supports the new features we want, but it stopped all the current data getting to their system. It’s a major mistake.”

The good feeling Emma had a moment before fled, replaced with concern. She began to work through the implications of the system being down. Her mind raced through contingency plans and calls she would need to make. TechCorp processed all membership for new sales. If the process wasn’t working, it meant a serious disruption to their customers.

“When did this happen?” she asked.

“Last night,” Daniel said.

“The system has been down all morning? Why wasn’t this raised as soon as it happened?”

Daniel explained how his team found the issue in the testing phase of the software release process. After they found the issue, the unplanned update was removed before it impacted any customers. He stressed that the testing processes had worked well because they caught the issue before it affected any customers. Unfortunately, in the process of removing the problem, TechCorp uncovered another previously unknown issue that had even bigger implications.

Each time the story took another turn, Emma alternated between concern and relief. Despite the ups and downs, the information seemed to have a positive trend. Her main concern was that she didn’t know what Daniel wanted her to do. TechCorp was a core part of the strategy for the next three years. She had to know if this issue affected the plan before the executive team finalized it that afternoon.

“This sounds serious,” Emma said, jumping in during a break in Daniel’s monologue. “Do we need to find another supplier?”

“Oh no,” Daniel said, “they found a way around it this morning.”

By this point, Emma had lost track of whether they had a problem or not. “I’m sorry, Daniel, but I’m confused. Is there something specific I need to know about TechCorp before my meeting?”

Daniel looked surprised. “Oh no, everything is great. They fixed everything. I just thought you would find this interesting. There’s never a dull moment around here. Anyway, I should let you go. Have a good time at the strategy session.”


  • How do you think Emma felt after Daniel left?
  • Do conversations like this happen to you?
  • What do you do if five minutes into a conversation you are still unclear on what the person needs you to do?
  • How much effort do you spend trying to work out what to do with the information?

How to avoid unclear intent

If you are wondering what to do if find yourself in a situation similar to the example above here’s a tip: If more than a minute has elapsed without the purpose of the conversation being clear, ask the speaker to clarify his or her intentions. This will help you both get the most out of the conversation.

Next steps

To learn how to avoid creating this situation when you start conversations, keep an eye out for the other articles in this series. I show the simple method for making the intent clear in the first few seconds of a conversation.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute

The First Minute book by Chris Fenning

My multiple award-winning book is a step-by-step guide for clear, concise communication in everyday work conversations.

Being concise is not about trying to condense all the information into 60 seconds. It’s about having clear intent, talking about one topic at a time, and focusing on solutions instead of dwelling on problems.

Throughout this book you’ll discover how to:

  • Have shorter, better work conversations and meetings
  • Get to the point faster without rambling or going off on tangents
  • Lead your audience toward the solution you need
  • Apply one technique to almost every discussion, email, presentation and interview with great results