We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their impact on us. In other words, we think we have good intentions and that our impact on others should be perceived as such. When someone else’s impact on us is negative, we may assume their intentions are bad.
Intentions and impacts are often not clear. First, our intentions don’t always have the impact we intend. We can’t assume that what we intended to say is what was heard. Second, it is a mistake to think that we know what people intend.
Tip #1: Good intentions do not pardon bad impact. When our words evoke an angry or fearful reaction in others, we tend to automatically defend our intentions. “I didn’t mean…what I meant was…” This is understandable but not helpful. We believe that if only people understood our intentions things would be okay. When people are in a reactive state, they ignore or discount information that does not justify their emotions. Therefore, before they can take in our clarification of our intention, they need to calm down.
One way to help them shift out of a reactive state is to acknowledge the impact of our words or actions. This might sound something like, “It seems as if what I just said might have upset you. Did it? (Pause and wait for an answer.) What do you think I meant by what I said? (Pause and wait for answer.) I’d like to clarify what I intended to communicate. Is that okay?”
Tip #2: Although we instantaneously make up stories about others’ intentions based on their impact on us (“He doesn’t think I can manage my team. He sounds like he wants to fire me, maybe the whole team!”) we cannot know what people’s intentions are unless they tell us. When we are afraid or angry, we tend to assume the worst about others’ intentions.
Explicitly separate intention from impact in your response to others. Describe what the person said or did and it’s impact on you, “I am getting upset about what you said, even afraid. When you said, ‘We’ve really got to fix the problems on this team,’ what did you mean? (Pause and wait for an answer.) Check your understanding of their intention, “Your intention is to work with us to improve how we respond to customer service calls not to dismantle the team. Correct?” (Pause and wait for an answer.)
Our impact on others might differ dramatically from our intentions. I am the one who knows about my intentions and others know about my impact on them. In sorting these out, we will be more effective if we stick with what we know: our intentions; and others stick with what they know: what they heard and it’s impact on them. Anything else—defensively repeating intentions or making up stories, interpretations, and assumptions about the intentions of others—muddies already turbid waters. And, in order to clarify misunderstood intentions, people need to be able to understand what we intended. They cannot do that until we acknowledge our impact on them.