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Intent vs. Impact: What Leaders Need to Know to Create a Safe Space

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I was sitting next to my brother in the backseat when a motorcycle driver recklessly swerved in front of us. The car driver, a recent acquaintance who had offered to give us a ride home from school, tried maneuvering the car to avoid hitting him. He didn’t hurt him, but the car flipped in a matter of seconds, and we crashed.

I ended up with 19 broken bones, an eight-day coma, costly medical bills, loss of income and college education, and a long and painful recovery process.

There are two ways to react to this story.

1. Focusing on intent

  • “I’m sure the motorcycle driver was just in a hurry.”
  • “I’m sure the driver was just trying to do what was right.”
  • “An accident is unintentional by definition.”

2. Focusing on impact

  • “I’m sad to hear you were hurt.”
  • “Were any others hurt?”
  • “Is everyone alive and well now?”

While most or maybe all of the intent-focused statements might be true, and the thoughts may come up automatically and involuntarily, they are not helpful when expressed to someone in pain or distress.

One of the ways we invalidate people is by highlighting our innocent intentions or those of others.

What is intent, and what is impact?

Intent is the idea or desire behind our language, behavior or lack of words or actions. It’s what we mean by our words or action.

Impact is the effect our words, action, silence or inaction have on another person or community. It’s how our words, actions, silence or inaction are felt, experienced, and understood by another.

Intent vs. impact – What is the difference?

Intent is the desired aim or goal of your words, actions, silence or inaction, so it is the impact you set out to create, while impact is how someone receives or perceives what you do or share. It’s what the listener hears, understands and feels, which is not guaranteed to match what the speaker expected. The listener is not a mind reader, so they will only be able to interpret the reality of your actions based on experience.

Each party will filter the situation through their own history, cultural context, beliefs, feelings and worldview.

Related: How Does Inclusive Culture Boost Company Performance?

Prioritizing impact

An inclusive leader understands that even the best intentions could result in a negative impact. However, an inclusive leader prioritizes impact to be respectful and validate the experience of the team member who feels hurt or distressed.

Does intent even matter?

The motorcycle driver kept on going, and we never found out who he was or if he even noticed what happened, and no one took his license plate or called the police. But if he had been prosecuted, his intent would have mattered in a court of law.

Both drivers would have probably been found innocent or charged in any way that could never reflect this car accident’s impact on my life.

Besides the apparent health, financial consequences and opportunity costs, this event has been highly debilitating to my mental health. It’s been more than 25 years, and I still experience anxiety and even panic attacks related to driving. And there is so much more!

But even in a courtroom, the intent also matters. If there had been evidence of the intent of harm, the accident would have instantly become a crime.

Acknowledging the impact of our conversations is imperative to create a safe place where people can be vulnerable.

However, it is essential to allow people to express their intent after being held accountable for the unintended consequences of their actions. When we explore both the impact and the intent, we can create connection, foster curiosity and communicate care.

Related: Why Our Best Intentions Might Not Be Interpreted as the Best

Avoiding invalidation

When someone voices a concern, we must avoid and discourage these invalidating statements:

  • “I didn’t mean any harm.”
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way. That was not my intention.”
  • “It was just a joke!”

A great leader does not deny, dismiss or downplay the impact words and behavior cause and educates others. This is especially crucial when seeking to create an inclusive environment.

For instance, as an immigrant to the United States and a woman of color, I have often been the target of discrimination, microaggressions and subtle (and overt) acts of exclusion. I have had thousands of conversations with people who have had similar experiences and are equally passionate advocates but don’t feel safe speaking out because:

  • They’ve learned that claiming a lack of bad intent or a lack of knowledge gets people off the hook.
  • They end up being shamed for their feelings, experiences and perceptions.
  • They don’t see a change in the environment.

Promoting a culture where everyone feels safe, seen and supported requires an impact-focused, intent-inclusive approach.

Related: 9 Best Practices to Improve Your Communication Skills and Become a More Effective Leader

My 3-step communication model

When there’s an intent vs. impact gap, we can bridge it with what I call “Communication CPR.” The three elements of Communication CPR are:

Care: Focusing on validating the impacted person.

Perspective: Allowing the affected person to provide their perspective and then exploring the other person’s intent.

Repair: Taking immediate action to make the necessary shifts to assure resolution, reconciliation and restitution.

Start Communication CPR today!

There were two drivers and three passengers in that car accident, and I’m grateful we all survived. When you practice the Communication CPR model in the workplace, your team’s harmony and morale will also survive and thrive.

When we focus on impact and explore intent, we can avoid otherness and create workplaces and communities that are safe, welcoming and inclusive, both in our personal and professional life.

Are you willing to try impact-focused intent-inclusive communication?

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