Setting Intentions: A Powerful Tool to Help Us Learn
As part of the opening of any professional development session that I lead, I always invite participants to set an intention for their learning time. This is a simple practice that takes very little time and that can have a great payoff.
It can help us learn in a much deeper and more authentic way, connect with others, and show up as our best selves. Whether I’m working with a group once for two hours or ongoing for a year, I always include this routine and get positive feedback on it.
Recently, someone asked if I could describe exactly what I do when I introduce this routine. How do I frame it? What exactly do I say?
First, the Intention-Setting activity comes right after three others: Welcoming, Agenda Review, and Community Agreements. In the Welcoming section, I garner all the warmth, enthusiasm, and calmness I can muster and express my gratitude for being wherever it is that I am and I add other introductory comments. But I keep them short, just a few minutes.
Next we get into the Agenda Review. Sometimes I offer a little framing commentary, giving teachers some background about why we’re going to learn or do what we will, and then I invite them to read over the agenda.
They all have hard copies of the agenda which provides a detailed road map for our learning, with overarching outcomes for the session:
- The What (the activities and topics)
- The Why" (the reasoning behind each section), and,
- the How (the structures in which they’ll learn, the timing for sections, and the materials they’ll need).
Group Norms and Agreements
Then I ask teachers to identify what they’re looking forward to doing, what they’re excited about learning—and to share those reflections with a partner. This section is important: I want to start directing participants’ thinking to what they’ll feel positive about.
After they’ve shared with a partner and I’ve answered any clarifying questions about what we’re going to do, I review the community agreements or norms for the group. When I’m working with a group that doesn’t have any established norms, I offer a few of my own: take care of yourself, take risks, be a vulnerable learner, and be mindful of other learners.
Then I move into intentions, and I say, “Given where we’re going today in our learning together and given whatever you’re coming in the room with—whatever is on your mind and going on in your life—I want to invite you to set an intention. An intention is a statement about how you want to be today or what you want to get out of today. It describes an aspiration for how you might think, feel, engage with others, or engage in your learning so that you can be your best self today.
“This is for you. An intention can sound like, “I want to be fully present.’ To be honest, that’s often mine. It could be, ‘I want to take risks.’ An intention could also be, ‘I want to connect with others’ or ‘I want to ask hard questions because I usually shy away from doing that.’ An intention can be ‘I want to be accepting of my colleagues and not get annoyed by things they say.’ That’s been mine on a few occasions. An intention reflects whatever might be most helpful for you, right now, to get the most from today.”
Rationale for Setting Intentions
I also offer some information about why setting intentions is useful. I tell teachers, “When you set an intention, you’re likely to make choices that support it—in what you do or think. You might forget all about your intention today, but some little part of your mind remembers it.”
Sometimes I share this quote by Daniel Siegel, from The Mindful Brain: “Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: We can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.” I like sharing that neuroscience supports this activity, which primes our mind to notice the actions, opportunities, people, and things that can bring about our intention for us. Some who may be less excited about intentions get engaged when I offer scientific reasoning.
After I say these things (and show a couple slides with a few of these phrases on them), I invite people to write their intention on the top of their agenda so they can find it later. This accomplishes two things: It becomes somewhat mandatory because the overwhelming majority of people will do this since everyone else will be writing, and it lets teachers know that we’ll come back to it.
I also invite them to turn to their partner and share their intention. I tell them, “Speaking our intention to another person creates a really nice, soft accountability for us. Our partner is not going to keep track of whether we’re holding it, but because we’ve told someone else, we’ll be more mindful of it.”
Then I share my intention with the whole group. I do this because I want to be softly accountable to them and to model the ways in which we can set an intention—the depths to which we can go. I look for ways to model intentions that are authentic and vulnerable and that connect me with participants. It’s an opportunity for me to show up as a colleague, a learner, and a human being.
If I’m working with a group for more than a couple times, I sometimes add on a piece: I ask participants to set an intention and identify what it’ll look or sound like to someone else if they’re holding that intention today. “So if your intention is to be present, perhaps that means you will only check your phone or email during the break, or if your intention is to take risks, then maybe you’ll contribute to the whole group discussion at least once.” I do this because I want to nudge people toward the actions that will demonstrate the intention and that will help them feel successful.
That’s how I roll out intentions.
Closing and Reflection
It’s really important to go back to the intentions during the time you have with a group. If it’s a short meeting (an hour or two), I’ll just return to it at the end of the time, during the Closing section of the agenda. I’ll say, “Pull out your agenda and recall the intention you set. How did that intention work for you today? Were you aware of it at any point? Did it help you in any way? This isn’t an opportunity to beat your self up; if you forgot all about it or didn’t hold it, that’s OK. This is just a gentle reflection on whether it showed up for you.”
Sometimes I invite people to share their reflection with their partner, but not always. If I’m working with a group all day, then at midday, before lunch, I’ll ask them to return to their intention and see how it’s been showing up for them. After lunch, I’ll say, “As you’re settling back in, recall your intention. Does that still feel like the best one for the afternoon? Or is there another intention that might be more helpful? You can always change intentions. As you settle down, settle yourself back into your intention.”
The longer you work with a group and engage in this intention-setting routine, the faster, easier, and deeper it gets. That’s because the more you do anything, the easier it gets. And so the more often we remind ourselves that we are intending to do something, the easier it gets.
I set intentions before I go into a coaching session, lead a workshop, or sit down to write. It’s a quick way for me to get focused and clear and helps me feel like I have control over what how I feel, how I enter into a conversation, and how I experience it.