Intent versus Impact: The Core of Misunderstanding

Norm Wright
Nov 20, 2018 · 6 min read
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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The phrase “intent versus impact” has popped up quite a bit in my regular conversations and readings of the past year. Some of this is a product of our time. Some of it goes to the local zeitgeist, I’m sure. Anyway, it has felt like a fresh model for thinking about communication. So I was surprised to find it in this week’s book, Difficult Conversations. This book is on the threshold of its 20th anniversary. The concept has felt novel but it clearly isn’t. Even better, our authors give it a more well-rounded treatment than what I’ve gotten before, lending a perspective that is as necessary as it is refreshing.

What’s that supposed to mean?

I was first introduced to the phrase in the context of how leaders should speak to others. We have to be aware that good intention isn’t enough. We have to be aware that the impact of our words can be quite different. Intent seldom equals impact in a perfect 1-to-1 match.

This makes perfect sense and reminds me of countless faux pas from my rather embarrassing past.

But it has also felt one-sided. After all, there are at least two people in this equation: the speaker and the listener. Shouldn’t this model apply to the listener, too?

Intent and Impact In The Ideal Form

  1. I, with the purest of intent, inadvertently say something that feels offensive to another person, creating negative impact.
  2. The audience feels that negative impact, shares how they feel, and explains why.
  3. I then clarify my intent and rephrase my original expression to avoid negative impact.
  4. The audience accepts this rephrasing and we move on.

This feels wildly onerous when written out in such a plain manner. In reality, this four-part exchange happens regularly and in the span of mere seconds when done between people who share a high-trust relationship. It’s nothing more than minor course correction. In many cases, one or two of these steps are even skipped because it would feel weirdly formal for best friends to talk that way.

So this is easy in high-trust relationships. Which leads us to think that trust is the key to good conversation. And sure, that would help a lot. But trust isn’t easily doled out and not very accessible in every situation. What’s necessary, then, is better clarity around our assumptions. Trust is great. Clarity can work just as well until trust emerges. Specifically, the two parties must remember these two elements of intent and impact, as derived from the authors:

  • You can always be aware of your intentions and the other person’s impact on you.
  • You can never be aware of the other person’s intent or your impact on them.

This gets to the two core mistakes that triggers a bad conversation. These are so pernicious that we often fail to realize we’re stuck in them. And once we’ve fallen into these traps, things often escalate very quickly, leaving us even more hurt and confused in the fallout. So within the four-part exchange highlighted above, things can go wrong on numerous points but here’s where the most-common problem arrives:

The Listener’s Biggest Mistake: Assigning The Speaker’s Intent

Every bad argument I’ve ever had starts with this mistake. Emphasis on the word “argument” rather than “conversation”. As explained in yesterday’s post, bad arguments are built around messages rather than conversations. Someone lobs a bad message at me and I attack the message by attacking the person — specifically their intent. It gets to a principle that I’m now trying to hold in my mind:

If any of us hold to a preconceived notion of the other person’s intent, we will not be able to listen openly.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a preconceived notion. You will always have that. You just can’t hold onto it. You must remain open to possible new information. You must treat the notion for what it is: a mere assumption. You must graciously offer a person a chance to clarify themselves with new information. Simple questions like “Why do you say that?” can be asked in a tone and meter that is curious rather than suspicious. It’s a fine line but good conversationalists know how to balance it.

In fact, the hallmark of a great learning conversation has very little to do with statements themselves. The learning is around the other person’s true intent and feelings. Where are they coming from? What are they trying to say? Not literally but figuratively.

When we devolve into argument, it’s because we’re fighting over specific language, specific messages, and using those items in rote confirmation-bias to prove the other person means X and X is wrong. Escalation then ensues: they are wrong and, because they are wrong, you are right and, since you are right, you are better and they should be ashamed.

But if you allow a person to explain their intent, and allow your assumptions to change with that information, you can keep a conversation alive.

The Speaker’s Biggest Mistake: Sanitizing With Their Intent

I don’t know many adults who would speak such language (especially the double-negative) but we certainly convey this idea when we are defensive. It is from this defensive posture that a speaker makes their biggest mistake.

When someone says I hurt them, I immediately feel hurt myself. Maybe I’m too sensitive but I think we all feel a measure of this. We feel misunderstood (that wasn’t my intent) and often vulnerable (where did I go wrong?). Frankly, I get nervous, too. If *that* hurt their feelings, then what else am I supposed to say? Innocent mistakes are sometimes the worst because I have no idea how I made them.

Occasionally, the other person takes the leap into accusation. They say something to the effect of “Your statement was hurtful. You wanted to hurt me.”

I never get bothered by this because I know my intent. But there have been times where I steamroll past the person’s feelings because, well, I don’t have time to explain my intent. Either they get it or they don’t.

The mistake here is that I am being defensive and failing to acknowledge their feelings. This diminishes the exchange. After all, what good is a conversation without the emotions that power much of what we say? To paraphrase a line from the book,

By keeping your feelings out of the relationship [or conversation] you are keeping an important part of yourself out of the relationship.

I can’t have an authentic conversation without allowing a person to express their feelings. But a person won’t regularly express their feelings if I don’t acknowledge them. The only times I don’t acknowledge a person’s feelings is when I’m either tired (which is most of the time) or not open-minded.

You can’t be defensive and open-minded at the same time. That feels simplistic and it is. If I’m not open-minded, I’m defensive. I try to remember this because, otherwise, I end up defensive and never realize it. Defensiveness sneaks up on all of us. It’s our primary state and we hardly even know it.

I’ve heard people haughtily say “I’m not defensive” with absolutely zero sense of irony. Think about that.

If you can be secure in yourself, secure in your intent, then nothing a person can say will hurt you. The accusations will skate right past and you can remain open, curious, and happy to express your genuine intent with accuracy and honesty. What’s the point? You can’t have a good conversation without a willingness to learn about the other person.

The common theme on both sides of this common issue is curiosity. It is incredibly powerful and inherently selfless. Hence the authors’ emphasis on the idea of a learning conversation. Whatever your intent, whatever the person’s impact, if you both come to the conversation with curiosity first, to understand before being understood, the exchange can be difficult and productive. Otherwise, it’s just plain difficult.

Striving Strategically

Insights for making hard, smart, righteous work.

Norm Wright

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Trying to provide the most useful thing you’ll read on any given day. Target success rate: 51%. More at

Striving Strategically

Insights for making hard, smart, righteous work. New books every week. New articles every business day.

Norm Wright

Written by

Trying to provide the most useful thing you’ll read on any given day. Target success rate: 51%. More at

Striving Strategically

Insights for making hard, smart, righteous work. New books every week. New articles every business day.

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