Have you ever tried to give someone a compliment and ended up hurting their feelings? Have you ever tried to help someone by giving them advice and ended up making them even more upset? If so, then you know that your intentions don’t always line up with your impact. You can have good intentions but still end up having a negative impact on someone. Becoming more aware of this simple but powerful idea—how someone feels about their communication (their intent) might be different from how it makes someone else feel (their impact)–can help you find new pathways to collaboration and improve your ability to turn conflicts into productive and forwarding conversations. 

Distinguishing Between Impact and Intent

It’s fairly easy to distinguish the difference between impact and intent when you’re the person who’s having an impact on someone that doesn’t match up with your intent. In situations like this, you might even say something like, “But that’s not what I meant!” What’s far more challenging is to stay aware of this distinction between impact and intent when you’re the person who’s being negatively impacted. If you can maintain awareness of this distinction in these more challenging situations, it will give you much more freedom and power in your ability to respond to the situation. 

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to forget about the difference between impact and intent when you’re the person who’s being negatively impacted. In fact, it’s such a common mistake people make that there’s a name for it psychology: the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to overemphasize a person’s character or personality (their intent) as a way of explaining their behavior (their impact), while underestimating the situational or external factors. For example, if someone passes us in the hallway without saying hello, and it negatively impacts us, we’re likely to attribute it to their personality or intentions (they’re a rude person; they don’t like me; they’re mad at me) instead of considering that there might be a completely different reason they didn’t say hello (their boss just gave them bad news; they had problems at home last night; they’re not feeling well). 

Flight, Fight, Freeze, or Fawn

When someone has a negative impact on us, and we assume that they intended to have that kind of negative impact on us, we most often get defensive and jump to our automatic ways of responding to a perceived aggression: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. In the example of the person not saying hello in the hallway, we might respond by ignoring them the next time we see them or gossiping about how rude they are or wondering if there’s something wrong with us since they obviously don’t like us anymore. 

A New, More Powerful Move

But there’s another move you can make in this situation! You can recognize the impact they had on you and then get curious about whether or not it was their intention to have that impact on you. You really don’t know until you ask them! Just having this awareness of the difference between impact and intent can help break up your automatic ways of reacting to a negative impact. You can stop and think, “Wait a minute, maybe they didn’t mean to have that kind of impact on me. It sure felt like they were being rude, but let me check in with them first before I react.” It’s not always easy when you’re feeling the sting of someone’s negative impact in the heat of the moment, but the more you practice being aware of the distinction between impact and intent and the more you practice checking in to see what someone’s intent was, the more natural this powerful move will become. 

Checking in on Someone’s Intent

It’s very rare that someone actually meant to have a negative impact on you. Most often, when you check in with them, they end up saying the same thing you’d probably say if someone let you know you had a negative impact on them: “That’s not what I meant!” Checking in with them and letting them know that they had a negative impact on you helps break up the conflict before it takes on a life of its own. Most often, when you let someone know they had a negative impact on you, it opens their eyes to the fact that their impact isn’t matching up with their intent. Dealing with the situation in this way can turn a potential battle into a process of collaboration.

A New Way to Navigate A Negative Impact

When we’re able to address and deal with someone’s negative impact in this way, it makes it much easier to collaborate and navigate conflict productively. We’re not acting out of our automatic responses to feeling hurt and defensive, which almost always creates more defensiveness and ultimately sabotages our ability to collaborate. The ability to distinguish between impact and intent is one of the keys to effectively dealing with the automatic defensiveness that comes up when we feel a negative impact. 

Checking in On Your Impact

Heightening your awareness of this distinction between impact and intent will also help you be more aware of the times when your impact might not have matched up with your intent. When you notice someone getting defensive or upset, you can check in with them to see if the impact of what you said was consistent with your intent. You might say something like, “My intention was to support you in getting this job done, but it feels like I might have had an unintended impact on you. How did that impact you?” Once again, you’re turning a potential conflict into an opportunity for collaboration. 

Who’s the Authority on Impact and Intent?

As you take on these kinds of conversations, it’s helpful to remember that the other person is the authority regarding the impact of your statements; you’re not. You have to check with the other person to find out what impact your statement had. It’s not helpful to argue with the other person about the impact you had on them. On the other hand, you are the authority on your intent; no one else can tell you what your intent was. The other person can inquire into what your intent was, and they might even probe with some challenging questions. Their questions might cause you to reflect on what your intent really was. Sometimes, you may think you only had positive intent, but when you look a little deeper, there was a little barb in there as well. Only you can determine that. Maintaining clarity about who is the authority regarding impact and intent can help you as you work together to find a forwarding way to deal with the situation. 

When Someone Intends to Have a Negative Impact

While it’s most often the case that people don’t intend to have a negative impact, there will be times when their negative impact matches with their intent. However, even in these rare cases, responding to their negative impact by sharing the impact they had on you and exploring whether or not that was their intent will allow you to have a much more productive conversation and give you new freedom and possibilities for dealing with the situation. Even when it seems completely obvious to you that the other person intended to have a negative impact on you, checking in with them is more productive than responding with your automatic reactions, which will rarely lead to a productive conversation. Most often, our automatic reactions to what we perceive to be someone’s negative intent only creates more conflict, upset, and defensiveness. 

More Productive and Forwarding Conversations

You now have a powerful tool to use the next time you feel the negative impact of someone else’s communication (or lack of communication!). Staying aware of the distinction between impact and intent and using it to find a new pathway to collaborate in these situations instead of merely acting out your automatic ways of responding will lead to more productive and forwarding conversations and outcomes.