impact > intent
impact > intent (file photo)

It was exactly the way I like it: a user-friendly, uncrowded wave machine. I caught many, I fell off none. I want a hundred more days like that, please. Wait – I did wipe out once. Oh, yeah. Late takeoff, thought I’d made it, pressing my weight into the tail to keep from pearling – well, that was my intent. But my timing was off and the nose caught and wham! I tumbled off the board into the impact zone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between what we mean to have happen and what actually happens.

When the action at hand is physical, the gulf between intent and impact is obvious, and it’s the latter we judge success or failure by.

But when it comes to words, people often emphasize intention as a way to minimize or excuse effect: “I didn’t mean – .”

This comes up in online conversations about sexism and racism, but I hadn’t thought about how intent/impact work in interpersonal relationships until the subject came up in a communication workshop a couple months ago and smacked me in that hard way sometimes obvious truths do.

Because I’ve definitely been guilty of saying something that turns out to be hurtful to someone else and, instead of apologizing, pulled out the “That’s not at all what I intended” defense. Lots of people do this. I’ve also been on the other side, trying to explain how what someone did caused me grief, only to be told, “Only a jerk would intend to hurt you. I’m not a jerk. So if you’re hurt, that’s not my fault.”

Of course this is how we react – we’re all, as my friend would say, the protagonists in our own stories. I definitely prefer the narrative in which I am a kind person who would never thoughtlessly wound another person. So if someone offers evidence to the contrary, what am I supposed to do? Accept that I might have actually been selfish, uncaring, malicious, etc.? I think not!

The problem with this self-defensive approach is: 1.) it keeps the conversation all about me instead of the person who is hurting; 2.) it ignores the actual effect.

Uncomfortable admission: I was recently called out on this.  A while back, several of us were standing around chatting in the bar and a friend of mine mentioned a friend of hers that I’d recently had a bad professional experience with. “Oh, that guy,” I steamrolled in, “I’m not happy with him, no, not happy at all.” I complained for another minute – or two or five – wrapping up with a shake of my head and a sigh. From my point of view, just some reactive and reasonable venting. From hers, I’d embarrassed her by directing my animosity in her direction in front of everyone else.

I truly did not mean to upset her. But she truly was upset, as she let me know a few weeks later when we happened to see each other passing on the street. I felt terrible. I should have immediately said, “Wow, I am so sorry that I behaved in a way that caused you to feel bad.” I should have acknowledged that my ranting was inappropriate. Eventually I apologized properly, but my first reaction was the “Sorry, but I didn’t mean – ” approach.

And I have been on the other side, wanting an apology, wanting things to be made right, and the conversation ricochets around to how can I take things so opposite of how they’re intended? It’s tough to defend yourself against accusations of being too sensitive – how does one respond to, “You’re so easily offended?” without either negating one’s own feelings or validating the accuser? I don’t know. I’m good at self-reflection and lousy at fighting, so I always lose the argument.

But I think about it like this: If we were to barrel around a corner and crash into another person, knocking them to the ground, for most of us, the instinctive response would be, “Oh! Sorry! Are you okay?” Is it really such a stretch to do the same when we inadvertently hurt someone with our words or notice our actions have consequences we didn’t expect?

It shouldn’t be. And maybe the next time, we’ll be better about watching where we’re going.