"That’s Not What I Meant!"

Impact – Not Intent – Is What Matters

Most of the time, we really don’t want to irritate or upset the people with whom we communicate. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings happen anyway, and we have our own personal syntax that shows up in how we respond to them.

In a conversation at O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 Summit last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how they are managing privacy and user control issues as Facebook becomes nearly ubiquitous. It provided an interesting angle on the impact of our communications on other people.

On Facebook or any electronic messaging system, you make judgments about who will want to receive what messages. The Web 2.0 Summit discussion focused on who gets to control ‘opting in.’

If your friend wants to send you something – or put you into a group where any group member can send you something – the friend is gauging what you want to receive.

This weekend I received about 20 messages in a language I don’t speak, because a friend included me in a group of mostly Croatian psychologists. It was a curiosity, not a nuisance, to me, illustrating the ripples we send across our global network. If it multiplied I would for sure be opting out!

On Facebook, we can opt out, often without letting the sender know. We may have to set controls in order to keep some sanity in our inboxes. Our friends may or may not know whether or how their messages are received.

At a personal level, when we are communicating face-to-face or voice-to-voice, we are gauging our listener’s interests and state of mind as we express ourselves. People may opt out and we can probably tell when they do!

Whatever our intention, sometimes others will respond in an unexpected and possibly unhappy way. It’s part of being
human that we can’t always gauge how our listener will take something.

A big differentiator of mature communicators is being accountable not just for your intention, but for the impact on the other person.

A friend confided in me about a breakdown in a new dating relationship. When the guy insisted she had confirmed a date that was only tentative in her mind, she checked with a third party who heard the conversation to ensure that she remembered it correctly. Even though she was right, he hadn’t heard it that way.

Surely, if he consistently hears something she hasn’t said, she may want to opt out altogether. In the short term, what is important is the impact, not her intention.

Being right in this case would just continue a dispute that is probably unnecessary. Right and wrong are pretty much irrelevant in misunderstandings. What’s relevant is to clear it up going forward, not going backward.

As you spend time with people you know well this week, you may want to be especially aware of your impact. If you hear yourself beginning to defend your intention, “That’s not what I meant,” consider reframing and putting your attention on what the other person received. That is what will determine how the communication proceeds from there.

To get the ball rolling, a gentle, “What did you hear me say?” (NOT accusatory, please) can tell you what the meaning of your communication was for the other person.

For good communication, it’s impact, not intention, that matters.

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