Intention vs Impact: Time to take a closer look

“Intention vs Impact” is a common concept in both conflict resolution and communication. As a quick overview, the impact others feel from our words and actions are not always, or usually, the same as what we intended. This can cause conflict, hurt feelings, misinterpretations, and sometimes ruined relationships.

I was recently talking with the first professor I ever had on the subject of conflict resolution. She mentioned that when conflicts occur because a person had a good intention but a bad impact they are much easier to resolve. If the receiver of the message can be genuinely curious about the intention, and the sender of the message can be receptive and reflective on the impact of their message, then the parties can clarify the details with each other and design how to adjust behaviors in the future. The incident feels resolved, future expectations on behavior are outlined, and the two parties leave the situation with a stronger sense of trust and comfort with each other.

In our conversation, my professor went on to state that when the intention is also negative, resolving conflict becomes more difficult. I took some time to think about this. I wanted to get a sense for how often this happens. People speak to their intentions all the time and rarely do they describe them as bad or negative. Instead, I hear people explaining their behaviors with positive intentions on a daily basis.

After reflecting on myself and some of the visitors I’ve heard here at CU in the past few months, I realized that just because we say our intentions are good, or believe they are positive, doesn’t mean they truly are. I suspect that deep down we are actually holding a negative intention more often than we would like to admit. Perhaps we feel guilty after an encounter so we attached a positive intention to help us feel better about our actions.

Here are some examples from my many years of this work:

Behavior Stated intention Actual intention
A staff member rolled their eyes at their boss in a team meeting after their boss said something they didn’t like To create levity for the group in a tense situation Wanting to embarrass the boss and get coworkers to also dislike the boss
A faculty member citing academic research in a faculty meeting discussion on how to address a difficult situation To provide the group with more information To shame the chair by making them look less smart and less informed
A student complaining about a professor to the Dean of the college To help the situation not happen in the future for other students and for the dean to address the professor productively To avoid addressing the professor directly because the student is uncomfortable and embarrassed how they behaved as well
A team member coming into work 2 hours late on the day of a big event To take care of a personal situation that was unexpected and couldn’t be avoided To punish the team and make them feel bad for not appreciating how much work the team member had put into this event without support

When problematic or disrespectful behavior occurs, it is important that it is addressed. Your intention is the key to the success of the impact of your intervention. Two different intentions can take the same messaging, action or behavior and lead to very different impacts or outcomes for the person or group you are addressing. Let’s look at the example of the faculty member providing academic research. It is possible that the group, and the chair, really does need that additional information to make an effective decision. Let’s look at two ways it could be done:

  • “I’m pretty sure everyone in the room is aware of X, Y, Z theories. I’m surprised the chair hasn’t brought them up as it is blatantly obvious how they relate to this issue.”
  • “This conversation is leading me to observe how X,Y, and Z theories apply. I think it might be helpful to look at these as we try to make this decision. What do others think?”

Can you identify the difference in intention?

If the underlying or deeper intention is to shame the other person, that will be the impact. They will feel that you tried to shame them. They may leave with more anger and frustration toward you and deny the problem at hand. They rarely leave the exchange with a better understanding of what the problem is, what specific behavior/words were problematic, and what specifically needs to be changed in the future.

I encourage us all, myself included, to take a deeper look into our intentions. Even if we think we know our intention, what if we asked ourselves one more time, is that true? Could there be another intention in beneath the surface? Before acting, take the time to identify what you truly want and don’t speak until your intention is able to match that goal. Then address the other person.

If you don’t realize that your root intention was unhealthy until afterward, that’s okay. Take the opportunity to reflect on that. How do you understand your true intention? Where was it coming from? What was the impact on the other person or the group? Apologize if you need to. Ask to start over.

We are humans and our emotions take over even when we don’t realize it. This leads us to behave in ways we don’t like but can cleverly justify. Self-awareness and the ability to clarify our intentions to ourselves and others can help us all in our relationships – at work, at school and at home.

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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