Intent vs Impact
I don’t know about any of you, but quite often in my life, things crop up that are unexpected. Am I always prepared? No. Can I adapt? Yes. Does is disrupt my plans and schedule and leave my feeling frustrated? Quite often, but it’s part and parcel of life, right? We just have to get a grip on it and move on…
Yes, that’s pretty much how it goes, but it’s how we move on that affects what happens next.
This week we’re dealing with intent vs impact. For those of us who have never heard this phrase before, intent is what your intentions are when you say or do something; impact is the actual effect it has. For example, imagine we are spending a sunny afternoon in the park with some friends and you and I are standing near each other, I have a football and kick the ball which hits you in the face. As any of us can understand, you would probably be quite upset and ask why I did that; my reply is ‘I didn’t mean to hit you, I was kicking the ball over there and it hit you by accident.’ My intention was not to hit you, but that was the impact of my action. Understandably, you would probably want an apology. Would I give one or would I stick to my guns and proclaim that was not what I meant to do?
As you can see, it’s very easy for our intent and impact to be different things, but does that mean hurting someone is ok because it’s not what we meant to do? Does a spouse who had an affair stand free of guilt for hurting their partner because it wasn’t their intention? Does making an error in the workplace that results in twenty people losing their job require no apology because it’s not what we meant to do? Of course not. These may be extreme examples, but now that we understand the difference between the two, let’s move forward.
At some point in our lives we have all hurt someone through words or actions. Most of those times we can probably all agree it wasn’t intentional, which is good to know, but regardless of whether we meant to or not, we have hurt someone. The important question is what did we do afterwards? Did we listen (and I mean truly listen) when they told us they were hurt? Or were we focused on protesting our innocence?
Unbeknownst to us, when we dominate a conversation by making it about our ‘intentions’, we are deflecting criticism about our behaviour/words. This is usually a defence mechanism as many of us are not open to hearing what feels like criticisms of our language or actions – that doesn’t feel good so we avoid it and try to dominate the conversation by sticking like glue to our intentions, when in reality, if I say something that hurts my husband, it doesn’t matter what my intention was because my husband is hurting. At the point of understanding this it’s clear I would then need to listen to how my words hurt him and I would need to apologise. That should lead me to reflect and empathise so I do my very best to not do it again.
When we spend all of our time dwelling on what our good intentions are we really are missing the point – the only way to actually prove good intentions is to stop insisting they are there and instead take the impact so seriously that we admit how much we don’t know, work to change our understanding and behaviour and insist again and again that others do the same.
Let’s be honest with each other, what does the intent of our actions or words really matter if the impact they are having is hurting or furthering the oppression of those around us? What we need to understand (and I don’t mean say we understand and carry on acting in the same way) is that when it comes to people’s lives and identities, the impact of our actions can be profound and far reaching; which is far more important than the question of our intent.
We need to ask ourselves what might be or might have been the impact of our words or actions. Then we need to step back and listen when we are being told the impact of our actions is out of whack with our intentions or our perception of ourselves (who we think we are).
Treating people fairly is about justice and that is far more important than our intentions, however noble we may feel they are. No one likes being told they’ve done or said something hurtful. I vividly remember a disagreement with a very close friend when I told her she had made me feel a certain way. Her response was firm in that she had not made me feel that way. This issue was never truly resolved and it was never apologised for, and while the decision was made to move forward and ‘past it,’ I have never forgotten the pain of that moment, of someone who I believed genuinely cared for me dismissing my words and attempting to tell me what I do and do not feel; the refusal to recognise the hurt of someone else should have been more important than what she had intended to do. Of course, I could revisit it, it would probably be very therapeutic to do so and perhaps allow me to put that pain to rest, but hearing a half-hearted ‘I’m sorry you think I hurt you’ type of apology would probably hurt more.
Why share the above? Because when I feel that pain or relive that moment wishing it had gone differently, wondering what I could have done differently and wonder whether I should go ahead and have a conversation about it years later, it brings me to ask myself – is there someone sitting somewhere in front of their computer reliving a pain I have caused them? Quite possibly. I would hate that to be the truth and I live in the hope that anyone who knows me well knows I am always open and ready to hear anything they want or need to say to me about anything – even more so if it means helping to bring closure to a pain someone is living with, and should that ever happen, the apology will be genuine. There is something very strong and brave about the willingness to sit in vulnerability with another person; it’s not something we’re all ready for, but when we are ready, when we can do that, that’s when we know we are actively participating in a meaningful relationship. If it’s not worth sitting in discomfort over or hearing things we don’t want to, or listening to someone verbalise something we don’t like about ourselves and working through it, then the relationship is quite possibly not one of great meaning and probably doesn’t bring much to our lives.
To develop understanding and empathy is a learning process. It definitely isn’t easy and it doesn’t just happen naturally or overnight. We have to decide we want to live that way and make a deliberate effort to do it. The best place to start is to turn off the ‘intent’ conversation and listen to the ‘impact’ conversation. Assume something critically important is being said, because it is.
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on your intent vs impact moments, and next time it comes up (because it will), please resist the urge to make the conversation about you and your innocence and really listen to what the other person is telling you. You don’t have to agree with someone’s point of view to acknowledge their pain.
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