Have you ever said something to someone, and then realized it didn’t land the way you meant it to?
Maybe you realized it right away, or maybe it took someone pointing it out to you, but it’s happened to all of us. It’s a classic case of a gap between intent and impact.
When we interact with others, there are essentially three pieces of the puzzle, and each of them equally important. First, there is intent. And this is essentially what we mean and what we hope to get across within the interaction. Second, there is action. This is what we do or the words that we speak. It can be a gesture, a posture that we assume, or a collection of words that come out of our mouth. And the third piece of this puzzle is impact. This is how it lands, and how the person on the other side of the interaction receives our message or our action.
So when the intent and the impact are the same, that’s kind of when magic happens, right? Everyone walks away feeling how we’d hoped they would. But when there’s a gap between the intent and the impact, that’s where trouble happens. Feelings can get hurt and misunderstandings can occur.
There are four key factors that can essentially scramble the signal so that there is not a clear path from the giver’s intent to the impact on the receiver. It’s important to understand how they can affect the way our intent translates through our action to our impact:
- Power dynamic. This applies whether you are a corporate executive, run a small department, sit on the board of a nonprofit, or lead a committee in your church. This often also shows up between parents and children. If you are in a position of power, your words carry additional weight. Things can be taken as absolutes, and will stay with people far longer than you intended them to stay. Both your criticism and your praise will carry more weight.
- Tone and body language. You may have heard this phrase growing up: “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” The same exact words spoken with an eye roll and crossed arms changes its meaning entirely. Tone and body language sometimes don’t match the words we’re saying, and other times are missing entirely. Think about texting or using a channel like slack or email, where you don’t have a tone of voice to go on and only words. This can create a problem too, because the absence of tone and the absence of body language requires us to fill in the blanks.
- Identity privilege. Privilege of any kind, but especially privilege that’s rooted in our identity can be really invisible. And this could be privilege based on race, based on gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language, or country of origin. It’s this subtle lens of bias where you are doing what comes naturally based on what you’ve always been exposed to, but it quickly becomes not-so-subtle to the person on the other side of the exchange who may not be experiencing that same privilege. One place that makes this really easy to see is jokes, because they often depend on cultural norms and stereotypes. Certain jokes may seem funny to one crowd, and plain painful or offensive to another.
- Personality. There are many areas we could get into here in terms of how personalities affect an interaction. For example, direct communicators say it like it is. There’s a goal of efficiency and accuracy. They just want to get the point across. And on the contrary with indirect communicators, there’s much more of a focus on not wanting to be pushy, not wanting to impose a point of view, not wanting to appear to be too authoritative. They’re going to skirt around the subject and see if they can eventually land where they want to. So if you get these two communication styles in a one-to-one interaction with no context, the experience is going to be frustrating for both and the impact suboptimal.
When it comes to our interactions, in the end, all that really matters is the impact. So we should always consider these four factors and ask ourselves how can we make adjustments to our delivery so that we’re sure to get the impact we want.
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