7 Reasons Why Your Impact May Be Different Than You Intended

One of the most valuable things I learned in my training as a coach and psychotherapist was the distinction between intent and impact. I always found it confusing that my actions could cause people harm when I had such positive intentions. This was only amplified when it came to talking to people who were different from me.

What is our intent?

Your intent may be to get to know someone. Your intent may be to comfort someone or offer helpful advice. Of course, your intent may also be to hurt someone, particularly if you are angry at them. However, for the purposes of this article we will explore situations where a positive intent lends to a negative impact or response.

What is the impact?

Impact is how our actions are experienced by the other. As a mixed-race child I often got the question, “What are you?” or “Where are you really from?” As an adult, people are still curious about my mixed heritage and ask me more refined versions of these questions, “Where are your parents from?” “What is your background?” The impact, my experience, and my corresponding response has varied. Sometimes I have felt welcomed by what I see as interest and responded warmly. Other times I have felt angered, saddened or confused by the question, as it can imply that I don’t belong here.

Impact is the result of so many different factors that are hidden and outside of our control that it can be extremely confusing to understand.

Here are the 7 most likely influences to consider:

1. Cultural differences

Are riding roller coasters exciting or terrifying for you? I could say that they’re terrifying and you could say that they’re exciting and we’d be talking about the same event. Culture is like that. When I was a kid visiting Japan I learned that slurping ramen noodles was polite whereas it was rude in the States. Same content (slurping noodles), different impact (polite/rude).

Are riding roller coasters exciting or terrifying for you? I could say that they’re terrifying and you could say that they’re exciting and we’d be talking about the same event. Culture is like that. When I was a kid visiting Japan I learned that slurping ramen noodles was polite whereas it was rude in the States. Same content (slurping noodles), different impact (polite/rude).

In Erin Meyer’s book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” she demonstrates how the same phrase can be interpreted very differently between the British and Dutch. For example, when the British use the phrase: “with all due respect…” what they mean is: “I think you are wrong”. The Dutch, on the other hand, hear: “She is listening to me.” When the British say: “I was a bit disappointed that…” they mean: “I am very upset and angry that…” The Dutch hear: “It doesn’t really matter.” You can see how easily impact can differ from intent.

When the British use the phrase: “with all due respect…” what they mean is: “I think you are wrong”. The Dutch, on the other hand, hear: “She is listening to me.” When the British say: “I was a bit disappointed that…” they mean: “I am very upset and angry that…” The Dutch hear: “It doesn’t really matter.” You can see how easily impact can differ from intent.

2. Personalities

If you’ve taken a Meyers Brigg’s Personality Test or studied the Enneagramyou may be familiar with how different we can be from each other. (Here is a free online Meyers Brigg’s test and further information.)

Having a rough understanding of different personality types is sometimes enough to be able to see in what way you’re not connecting with someone. For example, someone may be more introverted than you and would rather think alone for awhile about what happened in a meeting than volunteer a response right away. As someone more extraverted, you might interpret this person as checking out or not wanting to be involved when, in fact, they may just need time to collect their thoughts.

Having a rough understanding of different personality types is sometimes enough to be able to see in what way you’re not connecting with someone. For example, someone may be more introverted than you and would rather think alone for awhile about what happened in a meeting than volunteer a response right away. As someone more extraverted, you might interpret this person as checking out or not wanting to be involved when, in fact, they may just need time to collect their thoughts.

3. Communication styles

There are many different things that differentiate communication styles. Some examples are indirect vs. direct styles and low-context vs. high-context.

An speaker using an indirect style might say, “Wow, it’s unusually cold this time of year.” Someone with a direct style would instead say, “Please close the window. I’m cold.”

Low-context cultures are precise and use a lot more words to communicate.  A high-context culture relies on a common understanding of social norms, history and shared culture to communicate. Few words are needed to convey an idea. This works well for people in the culture, but not so well for people coming in from outside the culture.

Low-context cultures are precise and use a lot more words to communicate.  A high-context culture relies on a common understanding of social norms, history and shared culture to communicate. Few words are needed to convey an idea. This works well for people in the culture, but not so well for people coming in from outside the culture.

For example, in Iranian culture it is seen as rude to accept an offer the first time it’s presented. As a high-context culture, those who grew up in Iran know this and understand that they should first refuse and later accept an offer.

In Japan there is a term called “KY,” or kuuki yomenai, which means “one who cannot read the air.” In Japan, as well as many Asian countries, it is expected that you listen to what is not being said and it is essential to understanding what is being communicated.

Low-context cultures: Australian, Dutch, English Canadian, English, Finnish, German, Israeli, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Switzerland, United States

High-context cultures: Afghans, African, Arabic, Brazilian, Chinese, Filipino, French Canadian, French, Greek, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Latin Americans, Nepali, Pakistani, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Southern United States, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, South Slavic, West Slavic

Interrupting is also a culturally dependent part of communication. I have a personal example. With a dear Israeli friend, I thought I was showing my closeness to him by being a good quiet listener. I quickly learned that by not interrupting, to him I was communicating that I didn’t feel close to him!

4. Social status

Our social position in our culture’s hierarchy can play a big role. When someone identifies with a non-dominant group and you may appear to belong to a dominant group, your impact can carry additional weight than you had intended.

Our social position in our culture’s hierarchy can play a big role. When someone identifies with a non-dominant group and you may appear to belong to a dominant group, your impact can carry additional weight than you had intended.

For example, if a male CEO asks another man to take meeting notes that might have a different impact than if the CEO asks the only woman on the team to take notes. In U.S. culture men have a higher social position (i.e. more power and privilege) than women so by asking the only woman in the room to do a lower status task she may feel devalued.

When these social power differences remain unnoticed they can impact a conversation and rupture relationships.

When these social power differences remain unnoticed they can impact a conversation and rupture relationships.

There are also a lot of negative stereotypes in our culture. Certain gestures, phrases, or questions can evoke a negative stereotype, or reinforce a person’s outside status. These events happen on a daily basis for some, such that when you are the 10th person that day to ask a certain question, the individual may be tired of answering and reply with what appears to be surprising anger. These trigger phrases are known as microaggressions. (For more about microaggresssions see my article “Microaggressions: A primer“)

5. Personal history

In my private practice I’ve listened to many stories of people’s pasts. I am repeatedly reminded of how our past affects our adult lives. One female client harbored anger towards men because of the verbal abuse she received as a child from her father. Another client distrusted positive feedback because they were never given any when growing up. In the first example, the effects of the past may show up when this woman tries and fails to collaborate with men on her team. In the latter, this person may not offer positive feedback during reviews to their direct reports for fear of being thought of as insincere.

Our personal histories are also impacted by social inequities in our culture. Some people grew up getting more access to support and services than others. How well we were supported and nurtured as a child can affect how resilient to life’s stresses we are as adults.

Our personal histories are also impacted by social inequities in our culture. Some people grew up getting more access to support and services than others. How well we were supported and nurtured as a child can affect how resilient to life’s stresses we are as adults.

6. Outside events

This one is probably the most obvious and yet is often overlooked in the heat of the moment. The person you’re interacting with might be dealing with their own challenges and not be in a place to engage with you. They might have just gotten news of a family death, or been up all night with a newborn. On the other hand they may have just been given an exciting promotion and are not yet ready to join you in your sad news.

7. Unconscious intent/bias

Though we may have the intent to pay a compliment, for example, we may unwittingly do so from a subconscious belief based on a negative stereotype. In these three examples, keep in mind that these are based on U.S. cultural stereotypes, and may differ for other countries.

  1. A young woman is told, “You throw pretty well for a girl.” In America there is a stereotype that women are inferior to men. This comment indicates surprise that a woman can do something as well as a man and re-enforces the idea that this is an unusual event.
  2. Surprise is shown when hearing that a black friend went to Yale University. One stereotype of Black Americans is that they are uneducated, criminals, and poor. Going to an Ivy League school does not fit these expectations and surprise re-enforces this idea.
  3. A disabled person, while doing mundane tasks like buying groceries, is told, “You are so inspiring!” Not only do disabled individuals hear this a lot, it also highlights that they are somehow inferior to able-bodied folk — that they can’t do simple everyday tasks like buy groceries.

For more information on unconscious bias check out my articles Diversity and Unconscious Bias and How Unconscious Bias Manifests.

What to do?

What do you do if the impact of your actions doesn’t match your intent? How do you navigate different cultural norms, personality and communication styles? How do you take into account social inequities that might be affecting the impact of your actions?

There isn’t an easy answer to these questions. Because we humans are so complex a lot of trial and error is required as you learn to navigate the terrain of difference. For me, this is still a constant practice. The good news is that you can become more skilled and your improved awareness and ability to recover from, and repair, unintentional impact will greatly improve your communication and relationships. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Educate yourself! Learn about different cultures, personalities, communication styles, social inequities and microaggressions.
  2. Practice a self-regulating activity like meditation, yoga, compassion, or prayer. These practices develop the body’s natural ability to lower cortisol (a stress hormone) and heart rate in challenging situations.
  3. Learn a structure for clear communication. The key to this way of communicating is learning to separate the impact from intent, and speaking to these separately. I have a forthcoming article with more detail (follow me on twitter), but for now:
    1. When expressing feedback or asking a question in a potentially delicate situation it can be helpful to first state your intent. For example, “I really want to improve our working relationship and I’m trying to understand some of the friction I’m feeling when we talk. Would you be open to exploring this with me?”
    2. When on the receiving end, because we can’t know another’s intent, we can only describe the facts and the impact on us. Start with what is factually observable, such as words, gestures etc. Then describe the emotional impact on you. “I wasn’t finished with what I was saying when you started talking about our next initiative. I felt like my ideas weren’t valued or seen as important.”

Next steps

Try looking back on a conversation that didn’t go as you had intended. What might have been going on that you weren’t aware of at the time? Were unconscious biases at work? Were social inequities at play? What might you have done differently?

Interested in learning more? Contact me and let’s chat.

2 Responses to “7 Reasons Why Your Impact May Be Different Than You Intended

  • Linsey M. S.
    3 years ago

    Thanks, Angela. This information is quite handy, especially as I am attempting to get along with a coworker who has 20+ years more experience than I do. It helps to know there are lots of social inequities (among other factors) at play!

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