What I Said Isn’t What You Heard: How to Close the Gap Between Intent and Impact

Most of us have a tendency to get defensive when our intentions are put into question — “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” or “You’re hearing me wrong, what I actually meant was….” Somewhere along the line, probably when we were children, many of us learned that if our intentions were “pure,” we could escape consequences. These days, we’re held to a different standard as we’re all learning that the outcomes of our actions, regardless of the intent, hold more weight. 

Workplace humor is a good example. In a relaxed moment, one might make an off-color comment that ultimately hurts someone else’s feelings or makes them feel unsafe. Like me, you’ve probably witnessed this dynamic more than once. It can either escalate quickly, or the offended party might decide to stay quiet, whether out of fear or discomfort. This is highly relevant in systems rooted in oppression – in these instances, the impact can be even more significant. 

Context (and communication) are vital. In a simple “misunderstanding,” both perceptions may be valid but if there is going to be a convergence, accountability is necessary. That requires everyone to understand the difference between intent and impact and make an effort to close the gap.

Strategies to Close the Gap

So, what are some strategies we can use to close the gap between intent and impact?

  1. Slow down. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum between offender and offended, slowing down to introspect and reflect is never a bad idea. 
  2. Be aware. Acknowledge that as a human with agency, your actions and words have a ripple effect. If you accept this, you accept that your ripple can be positive or negative. 
  3. Practice empathy. Take a deep breath and shift your focus to how the other person is feeling. 
  4. Ask questions. Clarity is key, so don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “What do you mean?” “Can you offer context?” or, “What did you intend?”
  5. Listen to understand vs. respond. Active listening means you aren’t formulating your defense as the other person speaks. Listen to understand.
  6. Take accountability. There is power in apologies when they come from a place of accountability. Be prepared to admit when your impact doesn’t match your intent.
  7. Build a culture of feedback. Feedback is a gift and should be given freely and often without negative consequences. In this kind of culture, people can feel free to communicate from different perspectives. 
  8. Be honest. This means being honest about your intent but also acknowledging the reality of your impact. 
  9. Apologize without “ifs” or “buts.” When you say you’re sorry, there shouldn’t be qualifiers or any effort to shift the blame.

Accountability as the Consequence of Impact

We are fortunate to have freedom of speech but that freedom doesn’t negate our responsibility to recognize the impact of our words. Some people balk at the idea of consequences but it need not inspire such fear or outrage. We all make mistakes and should expect to make more as we learn. Sometimes consequences are as simple as having a discussion that ends in “I hear you” and “I’m sorry.”