Intent and impact

Intent and impact

I wish I had a dollar for every time some said to me “But that’s not what I meant”!  It’s such a common phrase in situations of conflict. Let me set the scene:  In the lunch room, Joe is watching Fred make a sandwich.  As Fred carefully butters the bread and slices the tomatoes, Joe laughs and says “Wow Fred, you are so anally-retentive – check out those geometrically constructed sandwiches”!  Everyone in the lunch room laughs…except Fred.  Later, Fred makes a complaint about Joe’s behaviour towards him.  In particular, he says that Joe behaving offensively towards him in front of his workmates.  When Joe is confronted with this allegation, he is dumbfounded.  Joe was just trying to be funny, and he knew that his comment would get a laugh from his mates.  He never intended for Fred to be offended by the comment and thinks that Fred is completely overreacting and should learn how to ‘take a joke’.  Sound familiar?

The problem in this kind of situation is that there is a vast difference between Joe’s intent (to be funny) and the impact it had on Fred (he was offended).  In conflict, when we are confronted with an un-intended impact, our natural response is to deny that the other person’s feelings are valid and to restate our intention.  So Joe’s response is likely to be something like “That’s totally ridiculous, I was just trying to be funny”.  However, this kind of response makes the conflict even worse.  Firstly, it denies the other person’s feelings. Whether or not Fred should objectivelyhave been offended by Joe’s comment, the fact is that he wasoffended.  When someone feels strongly about something, telling them that they shouldn’t feel that way is almost never going to change how they feel – it just makes them feel misunderstood and criticised, which makes the conflict worse.  Secondly, no matter how often a person re-states their intention, it doesn’t change the actualimpacton the other person.  If someone doesn’t think your comment is funny, no matter how many times you tell them it was meant to be funny, they are not going to laugh about it.

So how do we manage the intent/impact problem?  Firstly, we have to acknowledge that sometimes, despite our best intentions, our behaviour has a negative impact on others.  If we truly didn’t intend to cause such an impact, we can say this to the other person in an apologetic way.  For example, Joe could say to Fred “Fred, I never intended to offend you and I am sorry that you were offended.”  It’s important to note that this statement does not necessarily make any admission that Fred was completely right in being offended, nor does it imply that Joe was at fault.  It simply acknowledges that for whatever reason (justified or not) Fred was offended and Joe did not intend that and is sorry that the impact was not what he intended.

Fred could also use the intent/impact distinction by raising the issue with Joe before making a complaint. For example, he could say to Joe something like “Joe, when you made that comment about me being anally-retentive, I don’t know what you intended, but I was quite offended”.  What is important in this statement is that Fred is acknowledging that he is not sure about Joe’s intention (rather than jumping to the conclusion that Joe was intending to offend him) and it opens up an opportunity for Joe to apologise for the impact of his statement and to explain his actual intention (to be funny).

While these kinds of conversations are not easy, they certainly can avoid misunderstandings and potentially manage a conflict constructively at an early stage.  So many conflicts arise because of differences between intent and impact, and so many escalate and become full scale disputes because these kinds of conversations do not occur early in the conflict.

Keep an eye out for intent/impact problems in the day-to-day conflict around you – once you start looking for them, you will see them everywhere – and hopefully you can start managing them effectively!