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Intent vs. Impact: The Communication Disconnect

Your words likely don't have the impact that you intend them to have, and this can be problematic, particularly in the workplace.

 “That’s not what I meant!” 

How many times have you said those words in your lifetime? We begin every conversation with a particular intent - what we mean to say - however, intent doesn’t guarantee that your message will be received the way you anticipated. The impact - what the other person hears, feels, and understands - can often be far from its original intention.

In summary, intent refers to what you thought you were doing, whereas impact is how others perceived what you were doing.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Intent and impact can dictate not only working relationships, but the entire workplace dynamic as well. When the two are aligned, people feel heard and understood, which boosts morale and efficiency. When the intent does not match the impact, however, people can feel hurt or angry, and more often than not, results in conflict and miscommunication. Some examples include:

  • You tell your colleague a joke that upsets them. Your intent was to be lighthearted and funny, but the impact was hurtful.
  • Your supervisor institutes a new policy that’s aim is to improve your team culture, however the team feels like it’s another layer of work and surveillance. The intent was to boost morale and collaboration, but the impact was demotivating.

Despite all of your best intentions, your words and actions won’t always lead to their desired impact. Your family, friends, nor your colleagues can read your mind. They’ll filter what’s said through their own experience and backgrounds. With that in mind, let’s look at some strategies for using intent and impact to improve communication at work.

Don’t Take Impact Personally

Intent is personal and is very much tied to who you inherently are at your core. If you’re a helpful person, your intent is likely to help people. If you like to focus on goals, your intent is likely to direct people towards accomplishing goals.

While impact is typically not personal, it can certainly feel that way, and when the impact is hurtful, you may feel inclined to defend yourself so that the other person knows that wasn’t your intent. However, taking a defensive stance can in fact exacerbate the situation.

As a basic example, imagine that you’re at your desk and you decide to save time by quickly rolling your chair over to the printer to grab a paper. In the process, you roll over your co-worker’s foot and they cry out in pain and ask, “what did you do that for?” Your natural response may be to defend yourself and shout back, “I didn’t mean to!”

The solution here is to turn your focus to the recipient opposed to your feelings. “I’m so sorry! Are you ok?” The fact is that your actions hurt them, whether you meant to hurt them or not. It does not mean you’re a hurtful person.

When someone explains the impact, they’re referring to their own experience and perception of your actions, and when you respect their experience, you can respond in a way that encourages further communication and connection rather than alienation and resentment.

Be Conscious About Diversity

Communication is never easy, and a conversation can quickly turn south in a million different ways. Our words, non-verbal cues, timing, tone, and everything in between can easily take things off course. 

Add to that all our individual differences: gender, background, culture. Different people absorb, perceive and respond to the same information in different ways, so the impact of your words or actions will vary depending on who you’re talking to.

Communication is an art, not a science. With such a broad diversity of people in our lives that we interact with on a regular basis, we can never know exactly what to say and how to say it to ensure that the impact matches our intent. We will make mistakes, and we have the opportunity to educate and better ourselves in the process.

 


Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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