How to Signal Your Intent Through Actions

Sometimes we want people to understand us, but we can't just say what we mean. Instead, we signal our intentions through our actions. Signaling is something best done with care.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #378

Sometimes we need to signal what we mean more subtly than just stating our intention out loud—when we're negotiating, flirting, or trying to set up our work nemesis to take the fall for a bad management decision.

My local bookstore recently posted an ad for a nighttime negotiation class for adults. The class cost thousands of dollars, so I called them up and said, "I can't afford that much money. Give it to me for free." They said, "No." I said, "OK. Do you need my credit card or should I send a check?" They said, 'Wow, you really do need to learn negotiating, don't you?" And so, the deal was struck. Harvard Law School sure knows how to drive a hard bargain.

In the first class, we played a bidding game. Sealed bidding is an exercise in signaling intention through bid price, without the ability to communicate directly what you want. Just like flirting. So let's explore flirting as an analogous situation. Europa, former pop star and now secret overlord of the entire Eastern Bloc, is lonely. Yes, she may have a cybernetic son Thomas whom she built to keep her company, but that's no substitute for a shmoopie with whom she could do ... shmoopie things. You know, like going to the opera together. For the first time in many years, Europa is feeling ... romantic.

Don't just signal once. Most people need repetition to get the pattern.

She's recently met a prospective shmoopie named Sami. Sami is warm, friendly, and a great conversationalist and, in true 21st century style, texts Europa a dozen times a day. Europa, however, comes running to me on a regular basis. "Yes, we text all the time! But I don't know if Sami just wants to be friends." I roll my eyes. "Let me see the messages."

"I had a really great time last night. Let's hit the bowling alley again sometime." That's promising.

"I'm on a league. Maybe you could join us all for pizza after practice Wednesday." That's "just friends."

"I've told everyone about you and how wonderful you are." That's promising.

"After all, the way you've done so well in business, while keeping your emotional stability." That's "just friends." And by the way, it's pretty clear Sami doesn't know Europa that well. I'm not sure "emotionally stable" applies to someone who feels the need to build their very own cybernetic teenager in order to feel like a family.

Send a Clear, Unambiguous Signal

So far, Sami's messages are all nice but ambiguous. They could go either way. Maybe admiring Europa's skill in flirting, or maybe Sami's just giving a straightforward evaluation from the point of view of a sociologist who specializes in business case studies.

When you're sending a signal, being tentative doesn't work. By definition, you use signaling in situations where it doesn't work to discuss the situation explicitly—like flirting, or competitive bidding, or letting your team know that your idea is superior to the one presented by the senior person in the department.

Make signals obvious. "Europa, your eyes are the most beautiful shade of sea foam green I've ever seen." That's the sort of compliment you only give to a potential shmoopie. If you're in a bidding situation and want to signal your commitment to winning the bid, don't make a bid that's 2% higher than your rival's; make yours different enough that they know you're serious. When you double their bid, that sends a strong message that you're committed, and they may as well bow out now.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.