On Intent versus Impact
We talk through text message. We talk through email. We FaceTime and Skype and Facebook chat. We Snapchat and Kick and DM. We leave comments upon comments upon comments in threads within threads within subthreads. We swipe right and message through dating apps. We create memes and tag our besties. Occasionally – when we are feeling brave or desperate or if our friends aren’t messaging us back (or if they leave us on read) – we, with trembling fingers and baited breath, employ the call function on the phone and leave an awkward message. And sometimes, if we have to, we have conversations in person (gasp!).
Although we live in a world in which communication is more connected and immediate than ever, it also is more anonymous. Many of the forums we use to message or communicate provide opportunities for us to carefully curate the personas we present. They allow us to hide our vulnerabilities and our perceived inadequacies. They let us pull up the proverbial rug, sweep the dirtiest, most “shameful” parts of ourselves beneath, throw it over, and stomp the grime allllll the way dowwwwwwn. And to what end? Those qualities and experiences are still there, but we’ve eliminated the opportunity for genuine connection over shared experience and created situations in which we must work through our biggest, sometimes most painful, challenges alone.
Briefly, what we’re really doing is hiding our context, our lived truths. So that while, sure, we’re more connected superficially, we aren’t connected as genuinely. At least, not all the time.
I recently attended an implicit bias training that was the catalyst for this first of many twisty, somewhat messy explorations, and I was deeply moved by an activity we did. The activity had to do with the intent of our behaviors or things we say versus the impact of how they feel for the person on the receiving end. So, let’s do a little exercise to drive the point home (if you really want to go for it, grab a pen and paper and do this as a journal activity):
- Think of a time someone you loved or respected did something that hurt your feelings. Maybe that person was a parent or a sibling or a teach or a mentor.
- What happened? Describe the situation. Think through all the details.
- Because of what happened, what did you think or feel at the time? What do you still think or feel as a result of that interaction? How are you different as a result of that interaction?
In short, what was the impact?
Often, when we realize we’ve caused harm, our defensive selves jump to that unavoidable fourth bullet point: intent. “But what I meant was…” or “You learned your lesson, didn’t you?” Saying something to another human that rationalizes the harm we’ve caused and further demeans their experience and feelings. Doubling down and perpetuating the stripping of humanity instead of taking responsibility for not considering their lived context.
Real talk: intent doesn’t matter. Not really.
Not to teach a lesson. Not to make a joke. Not really ever. Intent doesn’t really matter because in this case, the impact results in harm to another human; and ultimately, the lesson could have been taught or the joke could have been made in another way. A more thoughtful way. A way that considers context.
All of this leads to some questions that have been floating around in my head and that I aim to unpack in the near future:
- How do we understand the impacts of the things we say or do if
a) we hide our contexts and truths behind colorful bitmojis and witty one-liners and and if we can’t know the contexts of others because they’re doing the same thing, and
b.) we can’t actually see the direct impacts of those things?
- How do we slow down enough to consider the rippling consequences of the things we say and do?
- How do we learn the humility to look past our intent and to sit in discomfort when we do harm to others? And how do we manage our emotional systems while we’re sitting in all this discomfort?
- How do we communicate that we’ve been harmed in a way that can be heard while also speaking our truth?
- How do we meaningfully repair harm?
Looks like I’m curating a series on restorative practice and non-violent communication. Buckle up, and get ready to sit in your feelings; it’s going to be doozy.