When Conversations are Hard - Separating Intent from Impact

When Conversations are Hard - Separating Intent from Impact


Lately, I’ve been noticing several posts online where individuals are using the terms “silenced” and “marginalized” in expressing their frustrations at meetings and important conversations that have not turned out as they would have liked. And as I read their posts in their entirety I wondered if in fact this was what was going on or perhaps another dynamic was at play. 

Let me explain…

I teach undergrads at a University and the use of words in alignment with their meaning is extremely important in communicating ideas and telling stories that are true and meaningful.  As a writer I can attest to the many times that the right word eludes me when I am trying to connect my thoughts to the page and communicate powerfully what I hope the reader will hear. 

And I have been in many staff meetings, group events, strategic planning sessions and retreats whereby the conversations are dominated by an agenda largely unbeknownst to the participants at the hands of a select few who are controlling the process and outcomes in their favour. 

Let me be clear. We are experiencing an unprecedented flood of groups of people, individually and collectively, who have indeed been silenced in both private and public arenas who are now stepping up to the microphone and letting their voices be heard.  And this is powerful and important and must continue to happen if we are truly going to bring about equality and healing as we dismantle those systems of oppression.

And yet…I have also come to realize that I can feel silenced when that is not in fact the case. And when I am the only one who holds a particular view in a group discussion, I can feel marginalized. And while I absolutely do not advocate for suppressing one’s feelings, I believe feelings are always an important part of managing ourselves in conflict, I do want us to consider their role in untangling impact from intent when a conversation does not go the way we planned.

The last few years I have been practicing the idea of “disentangling intent from impact” when⁠ I have come away from an interaction feeling frustrated towards the other party and not at all feeling satisfied with the result of our conversation.

I found I was increasingly approaching difficult conversations with a bias towards my counterpart which was actually hampering my ability to communicate clearly and work towards a mutual resolution. And I lost sight of my goal, to actually resolve the issue or speak my truth in a way that invited curiosity and in some way created a movement forward.

The book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen has helped me frame a series of questions to ask myself while experiencing and reflecting in those hard spaces and places. Let me share them here with you.

1. What exactly hapenned here? Replay the events leading up to and the actual conversation itself. What did they say or do? What did I say or do? This helps me separate the facts from the feelings (remembering that both are important and both have a role to play) but gives me data to make a more objective judgment about what actually transpired.

2.  What is the impact on me? This is where I explore my feelings and ask myself to go deeper about why I feel this way. What is it that I am actually feeling - fear of being misunderstood, frustrated with myself, unclear about what it is that I actually want? How does it affect how I view the other person? How is it currently impacting our relationship or the relationships of those around us (family, work colleagues, friends)? How do these feelings align with my personal values and how I want to show up in the world? What was my intention during this conversation? This is where I can evaluate the ideas of silencing and marginalization and determine if in fact these are accurate of the situation or not. 

3. What is the impact on the other person? This is where I can get creative and put myself in their shoes and ask, “How might I be feeling if I were in thier shoes? What is their truth in the situation? What might they say is the impact of my interactions on them?”  If I am in an ongoing relationship with the other person, it would be brave to actually ask them, without judgment or editorializing, how our interaction has impacted them or what their intention truly was. To hear their truth from them hopefully compels them to look deeper inside themselves as well to discover perhaps how their actions have contributed to the place where we find ourselves currently.

4. What did I learn about myself and the other person by asking these questions? When I take the time to reflect on Q.1-3, I can then summarize some key things I learned about myself and the other person and craft a plan moving forward. It may involve going back to re-address the issue armed with these new insights and approaching it from a differnt angle. I may want to have a hard conversation with the other person about the impact of their actions and either invite them into responding or asking them simply to be willing to hear my story of impact. It may also mean that I have determined that the other person is simply not willing to move forward together to address the issue and I may need to move on without them. 

These days I am trying to be more kind to myself, intentions included, recognizing that as honourable as I wish to be, I don’t always get it right. So when I find myself in the middle of a conflict or difficult conversation I can take a long view about the impact I am experiencing and stay curious about the intentions of that impact - mine and theirs. 

Lead on humans, B



SheLeads: Under Fire

SheLeads: Under Fire