Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say – 3 Ways To Align Intent And Impact
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.” My Grandma Dolores was great at the first part of that sage advice. She didn’t always nail the second part. Like the time she turned to my sister Amy and said “You don’t look quite as bad as the last time I saw you. Did you put on weight?”. Now I have no doubt that her intention going into that comment was good – my grandmother was a kind-hearted woman. But the impact of that comment was a different story. She not only insulted my sister once but managed to lob TWO insults her way while rolling them both inside of a sideways compliment! We still laugh about it to this day and whenever one of us lobs the other an insult rolled up in a compliment, we ask “Did you just Dolores me?”.
Having good intentions might get you by if you are a grandma, but for most of us, it isn’t enough to just mean well. Being intentional with our words matters, not just in our personal lives, but in the workplace too. And owning the impact that our words and actions have on other people, regardless of our intentions, is equally important.
I’ve experienced first-hand how restorative it is to be able to resolve a situation where intent vs impact didn’t line up. This past spring, as the world awaited the results of the Derek Chauvin trial, I was on a call with two of my clients. We were talking about the weather in Minnesota (because that’s what Minnesotans do!) and they commented about how they thought they saw snow on some of the news footage they were watching about the trial. Snow in April! These two women from the south couldn’t believe it. I confirmed that it was indeed snow and commented that the cold, gloomy days we had been having and the trail going on nearby was all starting to feel heavy.
Our conversation went on to other things. Then, my client stopped and said something along the lines of “I’m sorry, but something you said a bit ago Teresa is sticking with me and I just need to bring it up. I know the kind of person you are, so I know that you didn’t mean it this way, but from what you said earlier, it came across as if you were annoyed because of what’s going on with the trial and the inconvenience it is causing you. As a Black woman, that didn’t feel good to me. This is so much bigger than you or anyone else being inconvenienced. I just wanted to make you aware of how those words landed with me.”
I immediately recognized the impact of the way that I expressed myself, although I didn’t realize it at the time. So, I owned it. I apologized to both women for how I came across. My intent did not match my impact. It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last, I’m sure. But I appreciated that my client assumed the best about me, that she cared enough about me to be honest, and that I was able to show that I could take responsibility versus offense. Preserving that relationship mattered more to me than trying to over explain what I meant in what I originally said.
You can probably think of a time in your own life when you were on the receiving end of someone’s intent and impact being in opposition. For that other person, they may believe that their words were innocent. However, those words had an adverse and memorable impact on you, the listener. And many times, that impact can even feel like a microaggression.
What do you think the potential impact could be from statements like these spoken in the workplace?
· “You seem very dedicated, especially for someone who just had a baby.”
· “You really stood up for the team. Didn’t know you had it in you.”
· “The way you stay so positive, even with a disability, it’s so inspiring.”
· “It’s really impressive how you make natural hair styles look so professional.”
· “You speak really well. I can barely hear your accent.”
· “People who come into the office are really showing how committed they are.”
· “I don’t see color. I just see people.”
· “Were you upset in the meeting? It’s hard to tell with your facial expressions.”
· “We need some LGBTQ+ representation on the DEI task force. You should join.”
Those may seem a bit blatant, but you can bet that they’ve all happened in a workplace near you. And if challenged, the natural response would probably be a proclamation of “That was not my intention!” Although that may be true, it won’t help the situation much will it? Hearing about intent doesn’t bring understanding or resolution. That’s because the impact of what we say or do carries more weight than our intentions. Impact can really pack a punch!
Here are 3 ways to be more proactive about intent vs impact outcomes so that you can prevent the punch from happening in the first place:
1. Use the timeless advice of “think before you speak.” When you find yourself wondering if you should say something, take a quick mental inventory. Are you feeling frustrated, tired, hangry, or facing burnout? In the words of O’Shea Jackson, filmmaker, and entrepreneur (also known as Ice Cube), “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” If you’re having a high-stress day, that alone can impair your judgement, lead to risky decisions, and make it harder for you to be as thoughtful as you normally would. This is not an excuse of course, but it is something to be aware of.
So before you make a well-intended comment pause and ask yourself…what is my intention and is there anything about what I want to say that could be misperceived or worse yet, perceived as a microaggression? This checking yourself isn’t foolproof, but it is a good litmus test against wrecking yourself.
2. Always be willing to make a meaningful apology. Communicating a meaningful apology is a skill and a remarkable character trait. Be aware that you will make mistakes in your interpersonal communication (you are human after all). If you’re open to that possibility, then you’ll be ready on any given day to extend a meaningful apology to repair any harm. Normalizing apologizing builds trust and lets others know that they can depend on you to take responsibility for your part in an unfortunate misunderstanding.
A meaningful apology is one that:
· Acknowledges specifically where you went wrong
· Describes what efforts will be done to resolve the situation
· Sincerely expresses regret
3. Remember that your response is your choice. We work with humans, so inevitably someone is going to say something off-putting. Sometimes it’s obvious when a colleague says something harmful. At other times, ill intent is shrouded in talk about policy or procedures or even in compliments. And we know for ourselves that sometimes things are said out of ignorance (not being aware). Whatever the case, the impact it could have on you still matters. When something does come up, you get to decide if you want to address the situation directly or to handle it a different way.
No matter the circumstances, and no matter what others think you should do, your response is your choice. And at the end of the day, you are the one that must look yourself in the mirror and decide if you showed up as the person you intended to be. Choose wisely and intentionally.
We all have the opportunity daily to align our intent and impact more mindfully in our conversations with colleagues so that they don’t have to be on the receiving end of a microaggression or wonder “did you just Dolores me”. That intentionality will help foster work environments where people mean more than anyone’s need to prove a point. When there’s alignment of that intent and impact, we can truly say what we mean AND mean what we say!