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Communication Win - Understand Intention vs. Impact

We often get into conflicts and are left without a solid understanding of what actually happened. Why did we even just get in that fight?

Everyone needs tools to get past communication gridlocks. 

The most common communication tool I find myself offering in therapy is to clarify the difference between intention and impact and how to use it as a strength.

The main points to chew on:

  • Conflict arises and people are gridlocked when both parties are stuck defending their intentions

  • Disconnection is fueled when the impact is neither acknowledged nor validated. 

  • People who are willing to understand the difference, make amends for the impact they had on another person, and clarify their intensions will find themselves much more equipped to navigate conflicts.

Having “intention vs. impact” in your tool belt will give you a new set of eyes to see what’s happening in arguments and maintain your integrity, while still being able to make the repair needed. Deeper intimacy with your loved ones, better parenting, more efficiency at work, feeling more empowered to navigate social situations. 

Give this a read and I bet you’ll be surprised with how often this comes up and and pleased with how easy it can be to avoid. 

Intention vs. Impact - What happens most often

Many of us may not even recognize that there is a difference between intention and impact. I hear most of my clients speak of these communication disconnects with souses or their children, however it happens everywhere. 

The biggest thing I see with clients that people find communication gridlock when they are stuck defending their intentions. Take a basic example from the other night as my wife and I were in the morning chaos of getting the kids out the door for school.

I was given the great gift of being able to sleep late this particular morning and my wife was on point with most of the morning rituals. I made my way downstairs and was doing my best to engage and help however I can. I volunteered to drop one of our three off at school and figured I could then head to a coffee shop to do some writing. Little did I know I inadvertently stepped on a landmine. 

My wife was upset, but at that time I couldn’t tell why. I became frustrated because to me, heading to a coffee shop was a common occurrence where I can get work done to ultimately support the family. Intention solid. What’s the deal?

Here’s where this tool helps, especially when we have no idea what happened or why a landmine just went off. 

Intention vs. Impact guidelines:

  • You are the expert of your intentions; The other person is the expert of your impact

  • The other person is the expert of their intentions; You are the expert of their impact

Intention vs. Impact in Action: 

Let's resume our story. After dropping our son off at school, I reached back out to my wife and found out that she was operating on the understanding that I made the choice to head to a coffee shop while fully aware of the large list of things that she needed to do that morning. She was hurt that it felt like I was putting it all on her. Now that makes total sense! I pulled a u-turn and helped with the to-do list before coffee and we were able to clarify each of our intentions and validate the impacts and things were much better.

My intention was to try and help and simply forgot all the to-do’s of the morning as I had slept and was groggy. The impact was that my wife felt forgotten and overlooked.  You can see that even though my intentions were good, I still ended up hurting her. With this tool, I was able to realize there was a disconnect, be curious and break down my defensiveness to try and figure what happened. Trusting that my intention was good meant that whatever I did to upset her is valid and I can "safely" approach the impact I had.

Here’s how to use this….

To recover from something like this, it helps so much to apologize for the impact you had one someone no matter the intention. You don’t have to apologize for your intention which is so often what we get stuck on. Anytime I hear "I don't want to apologize for that" often means they're stuck in a gridlock of defending their intention.

"I am sorry that I forgot the to-do list and hurt your feelings which led to you feeling overlooked" is much different than something like “you’re right, I was selfish and wasn’t thinking of you.” I actually don’t know if I would even make that apology. But it sure goes a long way to validate the impact it had and clarify your intention if needed. 

  • Get curious and inquire about the impact you had on the other person

  • Acknowledge to yourself that you are the expert of your intention and they are the expert of the impact

  • Make repair for the impact the other person is reporting

  • Clarify your intention if needed or helpful

If the roles are switched:

  • Take a moment and realize what the impact to you was

  • Acknowledge to yourself that there is likely a difference between this and their intention: both are simultaneously valid

  • Let them know that you understand it may not have been their intention, and let them know the impact it had on you

  • Make any requests if needed

When both parties feel understood, connection can happen much faster and ultimately lead to a closer bond and increased skills / confidence on navigating future situations. 

So my encouragement to you is to keep in mind this idea of Intention vs. Impact and overlay it on some recent disagreements you have had. Maybe this is a good chance to clarify and repair a past situation.

Moving forward: keep this in mind the next time you find yourself in disagreement and see how it can offer a roadmap to finding connection again. 

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