“But I Didn’t Mean To!”

Posted on March 1, 2013

580451_10100667794965331_484213408_nReflections on Separating Intent from Impact
by Amy Yeager

It’s an unfortunate reality of life that the intentions behind our actions don’t always match their impact on other people. I see examples of this every day in the interactions of my one-year-old twins:

Sammy sees Abby smiling at her from across the floor. Giggling with glee, Sammy crawls over to her sister, and then promptly grabs a handful of her hair and yanks it. It takes her a few moments to realize that Abby’s screams are not her usual happy squeals. She stops laughing and looks over at me, perplexed.

Later in the day, Abby is shrieking with delight as she stands up on the futon and then plunks herself down, again and again. When her sister comes up to join her, she shrieks again and plunks herself right down on Sammy. Sammy giggles a bit, and then Abby—encouraged—grabs her face. Sammy starts to cry.

In adult life, the mismatches we encounter aren’t usually as obvious as this (intention of twin 1=affectionate exploration; impact on twin 2=ouch!). But they do cause their fair share of pain, and they are major contributors to communication breakdowns:

Your manager critiques your presentation in front of your entire team; her intention is to give you helpful feedback that others can learn from as well, but the result is that you feel humiliated.

You tell your friend she looks thinner lately; you’re intending to pay her a compliment, but she takes it as an insult, implying that she used to be overweight.

In their classic book Difficult Conversations—a must-read for anyone interested in this topic—Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explain that battles over intentions stem from mistakes on both sides*:

1 – Assuming that impact reflects intent

You assume that your manager meant to humiliate you.

Your friend assumes you intentionally insulted her.


2 – Assuming that good intentions make everything okay

Your manager thinks that because she was trying to be helpful, you have no reason to be angry with her.

You think that as soon as your friend understands what you were really trying to say, she’ll stop being upset.

The distinction between intent and impact is one that I want to be sure to teach my little girls. In part, I can do this by speaking up when they unintentionally hurt each other: “Abby, your sister didn’t mean to hurt you, even though what she did ended up being really painful for you.” “Sammy, what you did hurt your sister, even though that’s not at all what you meant to do.”

Much more powerful, and much more challenging, will be modeling this awareness in my own behavior. This means that when they do something that causes trouble, I tell them about the impact in a non-blameful way, and I ask them about their intentions without assuming I already know. It also means taking responsibility for my own behavior. When I inadvertently cause trouble or distress for them, I want to respond not with self defense (“I was just trying to be helpful,” “That’s not what I meant”) but rather with genuine empathy (“I hear how upsetting that was for you”).

Although neither Abby nor Sam can participate fully in these conversations just yet—we’re still waiting for their first words—I’m making a conscious effort to start applying this principle in the way I speak to the two of them. A couple of years from now, it will be interesting to see whether this has made a difference for them. When one of the twins accidentally knocks the other down, will she say, “I didn’t mean to!” or “Are you okay?”

*Note: I’ve simplified their analysis quite a bit for the purposes of this blog. Really, if you are interested, go read the book!