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Intent and Impact


Intentions don’t sanitize impact.

I have considered this statement many times in the past few weeks.

While there are certainly instances of malicious intent in thoughts, feelings and actions, for the most part, many of us operate with the intent to do good, be good, offer good to the world – but what we do isn’t always received in the way we set out to offer it.

This is a prevalent issue, illustrated in many quotes reflecting such a situation and one that comes to mind for me, noting how it can feel when our best intentions go awry, is from Oscar Wilde:

No good deed goes unpunished

It can be frustrating and even paralyzing to consider this consequence – often it turns into, “well, what is the point of doing anything then…I’ll probably get it wrong…someone is going to be mad/hurt and all I was trying to do was help.”

While it is entirely true that we cannot know or control the response of others, we have opportunity in every interaction to listen and learn and then decide if we would like to proceed differently.


Consider, in the time before physical distancing if you will, accidentally stepping on someone’s foot – in the majority of cases, the person who did the stepping will automatically state, “oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t see you there/mean to step on your foot.” The response is not generally, “that shouldn’t hurt because I didn’t mean to step on your foot.”

That one is a little easier to work with because there wasn’t initial intent to do good that went “wrong” as there was really no intent at all (unless you consciously walk around with the thought “I’m not going to step on anyone’s foot today”), but it is a warm-up.

Consider another example where you send a message, with every intent to be helpful and are met with the response that it was actually hurtful. How do you respond here? Is it fair to offer an explanation of your intent? Certainly – somethings can be lost in translation and clarification can be useful. Is it fair to stop there and insist that there could be no hurt from this message because of the intent to be helpful? If you are actually looking to be helpful, that might not be the ideal stopping point.

It is important to note that the hurt from your message only comes from the person’s thought about it, not from the message itself. This can be useful in creating space between who you are, what the message said, how it was heard and who they are.




If we are to continue forward with deeper connections and greater understanding, consider how you might continue with a willingness to listen and hear perspectives without taking it personally.

  • Think of the message as just words – neutral words.

  • Think of your intent as your thoughts – you are choosing what you think about the words and that brings you a certain feeling.

  • Think of the impact as their thoughts – they are choosing what they think about the words and that brings them a certain feeling.

  • When these match, there is a resonance and a connection.

  • When these don’t match, there is dissonance and disconnection.

  • When we find ourselves in a mismatch, it is often uncomfortable.

  • When we find ourselves in a mismatch, we have the opportunity to reflect or to reject.

  • We can become defensive or we can become curious.

  • We can listen or we can refute.

  • We can’t change what we said but we can deepen our understanding and consider how we would like to move forward.

  • We can decide whether we simply want to stand by our intent and accept that some might find it helpful and others might find it hurtful, recognizing that both of those are results beyond our control.

  • We can decide whether we want to make adjustments, to listen to the perspectives of others and make adjustments in how we proceed going forward.

  • We can decide whether we want to apologize and how that might sound:

Consider these:

  • I’m sorry you felt that way.

  • I’m sorry you felt that way, that’s not what I meant.

  • I’m sorry you felt that way, that’s not what I meant. I just don’t see how this could be hurtful. when I was only trying to help.

  • I’m sorry you felt that way, that’s not what I meant. I just don’t see how this could be hurtful. when I was only trying to help.

While offering an apology, they are essentially blaming the other person and invalidating that it be possible for them to feel hurt because of your intent to help.

Consider these alternatives:

  • I’m sorry what I said was hurtful, that was not my intent.

  • I’m sorry what I said was hurtful, that was not my intent, thank you for taking the time to share your feelings and perspective. I hear what you are saying.

  • I’m sorry what I said was hurtful, that was not my intent, thank you for taking the time to share your feelings and perspective. I hear what you are saying. I never considered that.

  • I’m sorry what I said was hurtful, that was not my intent, thank you for taking the time to share your feelings and perspective. I hear what you are saying. I never considered that. I will take your thoughts into consideration to clarify my message further.

Acknowledging your intent AND allowing for it to be received in a way you did not expect blames no one but creates space for deeper understanding. Each phase in this process allows for growth and adaptation and, if “helpful” was the initial intent, creates opportunity to get clearer on how to offer effectively. It is important to note that even the next iteration, with all the adjustments and reflectiveness, could be received as unhelpful or hurtful.

You can decide (based on your thoughts) if that feels futile and frustrating or (also based on your thoughts) if that feels promising and possible – that if you are seeking to help, getting this feedback is the best way to do so more effectively and there is always the opportunity to try again.

Consider the opportunity to meld these two adages…



May we have the capacity to see impact unimpeded by the lens of intent, deepening our connection to others through communication and understanding.

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