Have you ever heard co-workers engaged in a conflict exclaim, “I didn’t mean it that way”?

“Intentions” play a crucial part in dust ups like this. Nine times out ten, you didn’t mean to hurt someone — in fact, you were trying to help them!  So why does it always seem to come across as the opposite?

In one of my favorite business books in recent years, “The Joy of Conflict Resolution”,  author Gary Harper has some great insight into this phenomenon.

In his book, Harper outlines three archetypes we tend to play when caught up in what he calls the “drama triangle”.  They are:

The Villain
The Hero
The Victim
Generally speaking, the villain is seen as the nefarious bad guy; the hero is seen as the action-oriented good guy, righting wrongs, saving the world; the victim is seen as the innocent sufferer, acted upon negatively by the evil villain.

What’s significant to me about these archetype is that each believes that he has GOOD INTENTIONS.  The villain generally thinks she’s helping the world in some way, and that she’s just misunderstood.  The hero tends to feel that by stopping the villain, he is demonstrating his devotion to the common good. And the victim also feels she has the best of intentions, foiled by the self-serving villain.

So, all three characters believe they have positive intentions. What makes it a “drama” or “conflict” triangle is that the three characters don’t share their intentions with each other.  They ACT THEM OUT.  The villain tries to find someone to help her slay the villain.  The hero asserts himself forcefully for the the victim’s benefit. And the villain fights back against the hero, often becoming the victim herself when the hero crosses the line and behaves overly aggressively.

At home or at work … I believe it would behoove us all, when locked in a conflict, to stop and ask ourselves these six questions:

1) What role am I playing?  Am I acting out the victim, seeking aid to my cause?  Am I playing the aggressive hero?  Might I be perceived as the villain?

2) How am I mentally labeling the other people involved in the drama?

3) What positive intentions might they at least think they have?

4) Can I affirm & recognize the other person’s intention (even if I don’t like the result)?

5) Can I then communicate to each person the impact of their actions (no matter how positive the intention)?

6) And finally, can we brainstorm mutually beneficial solutions, where everyone’s needs get met?

By acknowledging people’s positive intentions, you keep them in the dialogue.  The conversation feels safer for them when they know you don’t see them as the villain.  Sure, their well-intended actions may have back-fired, but at least you’re confirming that they started from a positive place.  And often, that recognition makes all the difference.