Thwarted Intentions: When Unconscious Commitments Compete with What We Really Want

February 2014

As part of our certification program for FutureShapers Roundtable Hosts, we have incorporated an exercise similar to one I first did with Ken Homer, a Bay Area organizational development consultant. Ken learned much of what he knows about the “immunity to change” process from Harvard’s Robert Kegan who wrote a book with the same title.

The process Ken took us through involved comparing one’s stated commitment with less conscious (or subconscious) commitments that compete with and ultimately thwart one’s stated or explicit commitment. Ken’s model, inspired by Kegan’s work, was a bit more general than my FutureShapers partner Tom Eddington and I wanted. We wanted a process aimed at one thing: eliminating any “competing commitments” that would interfere with our Hosts’ effectiveness at forming their Roundtables.

Here is a short YouTube video of Kegan talking about competing commitments:

You may have heard the saying that “We human beings tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” This slanted style of judging allows us to use a different metric for others than we use for ourselves. But deciding to do something and intending it to happen are very different from actually doing it!

In the FutureShapers process, we ask Host candidates to write down their commitment – in this case to elegantly and easily enroll organizational executives into a peer group they will then facilitate and coach members of the group. Next we ask them to examine their behavior patterns and see where they either fail to act supportively or act in opposition to their explicitly stated commitment. We then have them explore any emotional concerns they think might be causing their thwarting activity and subsequently the assumptions that underlie those feelings.

The objective is to invalidate the previously unexamined assumptions so the fears or worries can be dissolved and the person’s actions can support their explicit commitments.

An example: Mary knows the advantages of planning ahead and having a schedule; she’d be better organized, not get so stressed out, she wouldn’t’ miss appointments, etc. She felt quite conflicted because she knew she would be better off if she planned ahead, yet balked at every attempt to plan. As she went through this process, she realized her competing commitment to herself was to be a spontaneous person. She really valued spontaneity. She discovered her underlying assumption was that one could not be spontaneous if one planned ahead. Once she examined this assumption she immediately realized how silly and unfounded it was. She could be spontaneous and still plan ahead; they were not mutually exclusive.

Back in the early days of the human potential movement, “thwarted intentions” was identified as one of three leading causes of personal upsets. People often assume that this means someone else is thwarting their intention, not that they have a competing commitment within themselves! The other identified causes for upsets were “unmet expectations” and “undelivered communications.”

EST founder Werner Erhard taught that behind every upset lies a commitment, most often an unconscious one, but a commitment nonetheless. This is the kind of competing commitment we want to dissolve so we can focus on and act in accord with our explicit commitment.


[NOTE: Anyone interested in knowing more about the process of becoming a Certified FutureShapers Roundtable Host can visit or email me at]


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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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