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Effective Communication: How to Bridge the Gap Between Intention and Impact

Our words and actions matter, including what we don’t say and don’t do.

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A caucasian women speaking with a black American woman both in business attire

Our lives, during this pandemic or any time, especially at work, could be described as one conversation following another. Our words have influence. A mentor of mine from many years ago taught me what he called “the law of influence” for leaders: Everything that you say and everything that you don’t say, everything that you do and everything that you don’t do, has influence. This may be pronounced for those in leadership roles, but I think that this “law” is useful and worth paying attention to for everyone. Our words and actions matter, including what we don’t say and don’t do.

One of my favorite books on effective communication is Difficult Conversations. The subtitle is How To Discuss What Matters Most. It’s filled with practical teachings on why it can be difficult to speak clearly, openly, vulnerably, and effectively, and provides many practices for how to align our speech, our conversations with our highest intentions around clarity and effectiveness.

A key point from this book is the recognition that there is a difference between impact and intention. For example, if someone says to me “Marc, I’m not sure that you heard what I said” these words might impact me in a number of ways. I might feel an immediate “ouch” and say to myself, I wonder why they think that, and I wonder why they are saying that. Nearly instantly, I might shift from the impact these words had on me (ouch) to believing I know what their intention is. I might think they are angry or disappointed. They might be accusing or blaming me for not listening. In truth, I have no idea, really what their intention is. Perhaps they were merely concerned, and wanted to make sure that they were being heard and understood. Nothing more than that.

This tiny example can be extrapolated to what much of can go wrong in our conversations. It can be an example of the hundreds and thousands of conversations we have every day – at work and outside or work. As a leader, or in nearly any situation, there is what you say (your intention) and there is how what you say is received (the impact). It seems to be the human condition, especially when someone’s words hurt us or when we feel in any way vulnerable, we immediately, perhaps unconsciously shift directly to thinking we know what the other person’s intention is, and move quickly to blame, judgement, and defensiveness. These patterns can be subtle, and take some practice to even notice and pick up on. (This is one of the many reasons I think that a meditation practice is so important. It can help us slow down the process of shifting from impact toward assuming intention and blame.)

When intention and impact are not addressed, it is easy for confusion, and misunderstanding to become the norm. Real trust and real communication become more and more difficult.

When someone says something and you feel any kind of “ouch” is it possible to be curious and ask, “I wonder, I’m curious what you mean by that. Can you tell me more?” Or, when you say something, and you notice that it is received in a way different than how you intended, you might be curious about how your words were received. What impact did your words have, and how aligned or misaligned were they with your intentions?

I’ve just begun reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo. One of the underlying themes is how difficult it is to understand another person’s experience. The book explores the personal and systemic reasons for this lack of real wonder, curiosity, empathy, and understanding. Our words have impact, that may be very different than our intentions. Our silence also has impact, especially in light of the depth and breath of ongoing systemic abuse and systemic silence.

Much of the work and practices from my most recent book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, bring awareness to noticing impact and intention and to practicing in ways to develop more effective communication. This is especially true of the practices:

  • Don’t Be An Expert
  • Connect To Your Pain
  • Connect To The Pain of Others
  • Depend on Others
  • Keep Making It Simpler

Explore this:

  • Notice how you are impacted by other’s words. In particular when you feel hurt or vulnerable, do you assume intention? Does blame arise? Can you experiment with being more curious?
  • Notice how your words impact others. Pay attention to when you sense that there may be a gap between your intention and the impact of your words. Can you be open and explore how to align your words, intentions, and their impact?

A few other resources on effective communication:

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