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The Gift of Intent and Understanding; Part 1

In 1905 an author named O. Henry published a short story called "The Gift of the Magi".  Here's the gist of it:

  • Man and woman are in love, but poor.
  • Man's most valuable possession is his pocket watch, but not a chain on which to carry it.
  • Woman's most valuable possession is her long hair, but no combs with which to maintain it.
  • Man, in secret, sells his watch to pay for a nice comb set for her.
  • Woman, in secret, sells her hair to pay for pocket chain for him.
  • During their Christmas day gift-exchange, the folly of their choices, however well-intended, were revealed.

The wisdom we're supposed to derive from this tale is that both received a gift greater than combs or a chain.  They each received the gift of love, evidenced by the extreme sacrifice they made for each other.

But wait, is that the best we can do?  

What if they knew in advance that their partner was willing to sacrifice their most valuable possessions AND they received a special gift, too?  

Read on for a modern interpretation and a twist on how to prevent the most common of misunderstandings - the other person's intent.

Let's do a quick 3-part reframing of our story:


  • Both the man and the woman intend to sacrifice their most valuable possession so that they can purchase a special gift for the other.
  • They each feel good about their sacrifice because they love each other.   

That's because our own intentions are how we judge our own actions.


  • Both man and woman judge the other's intentions and the related sacrifice as being a pure and loving action.

That's because the other person's actions are how we judge their intentions.

Unfortunately ...

  • Upon receiving a gift no longer useful, both the man and the woman had no other choice than to overlook the misfired gifts.
  • Instead, their judgment focused only on the other person's intended actions (sacrifice), not by the intended result (sacrifice + gift).

For one person to accurately judge another person's intent AND sacrifice, there must be a greater understanding

So, the new takeaway to this timeless story? 

Communicate your intentions to improve understanding.


  • What if we communicated our intent before taking action?  
  • What if we understood the other person's intent before judging?

Simple, really.  

The result would be alignment between intent, action, and judgment.  

The even better news is that aligning our intents, actions, and judgments is achievable with more authentic communication.

Buzzwords aside, authentic communication is a real step-up from 'business as usual'.  

I've discovered that the very best communicators among us rely on the essential skills below to consistently and successfully get our point across:

  1. Giving and receiving feedback
  2. Exhibiting emotional intelligence
  3. Briefing and debriefing
  4. Maintaining self-esteem
  5. Receiving and managing criticism

If you're confident in your skills in the above areas, I offer a hearty congratulations.  Authentic communicators are definitely in demand. 

However, if you are like most of us reading this article and could use some (or a lot) of improvement in our communication skills, I invite you to browse the below exclusive Guidebooks for the mix of solutions which are right for you and your team.

Mike McKenna

About the author

Mike McKenna is the founder and president of TEAM Solutions. He helps public and private sector leaders improve their outcomes before, during and after a planned event or unplanned crisis.

Please contact Mike via the Contact page.

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