Intent Versus Impact

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Have you ever written an email, left a message or made a comment that was completely misinterpreted by the person who received it?

woman raising her hands in surprise at the content of a presentation

Welcome to the world of (mis)communication. We all have different ways of expressing ourselves and, in most cases, prefer that style of communication and expect (consciously or subconsciously), other people to conform to it. But, of course, other people have their own communication styles and preferences as well, and expect similar accommodation.

On top of that, we all apply our own personal filters to each incoming message and interpret it accordingly!

The truth is, when it comes to communication, we are all so busy listening to what we want to hear and reading what we expect to read that we often miss the meaning of the message entirely. In other words:

 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

                                                                        ~ George Bernard Shaw

That’s why it’s so important to close your “intent versus impact” communication gap and make sure your message is received as intended!

How to Close the Gap

There are three things you can do to reduce the gap between what you mean to communicate and the message received on the other end.

1. Communication Empathy

The first is to cultivate a heightened awareness of people’s reactions, including: body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, the atmosphere in the room, or the sudden, heavy silence on the other end of the telephone line. Pay attention to any indications that the impact of what you’re saying is different than what you expected and try a different approach.

Of course, this presupposes that the communication is taking place either face-to-face, by video or on the phone. It’s much harder to read the impact of your message in an email or text response, even when it’s punctuated with emoticons. Perhaps, if you know the person you are communicating with well, you might be able to read between the written lines. But more often than not, even our best attempts to intuit the meaning behind the meaning are skewed by our own communication preferences and personal filters.  

As human beings, we are actually pretty good mind-readers when we have the luxury of face-to-face communication. Once we lose the additional information that visual and auditory input provides, our ability to assess whether our message was received as intended is significantly impaired.

2. Communication Alignment

The second way to improve the odds that your message is getting through as intended is to become adept at communicating in the preferred medium and style of the person your message is meant for. In the workplace, that means paying attention to the way co-workers and the people on your team communicate and striving to match that mode of communication when interacting with them. To achieve your desired result, for example, you might send a succinct email to one person and schedule a 30 minute conversation with another to share the same information—based on their preferred mode of communication.

More often than not, when communication goes off track it’s not what is said (or written), but how it’s said (or written). With practice, you can become the kind of communicator who seems to know exactly the right words at the right time for everyone you interact with.

3. Communication Clarity

The third thing you can do to close the “intent versus impact” communication gap is to take the time to clarify what message was received. This is not to suggest that you pepper your communication with questions like: “Do you understand?” or “Do you get my meaning?” These closed questions will most often be answered in the affirmative. After all, we seldom know when we’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted a message. Typically, miscommunication only becomes apparent once it’s shared or acted upon, when it’s often too late for corrective measures.

Here are a few examples of the type of clarification that helps close the gap between intent and impact.

  • After a discussion, during which a number of items were agreed upon, ask your team member to summarize the conversation in an email, to make sure you’re both on the same page and can hold each other accountable.
  • When composing important written messages, have them reviewed by one or two people who tend to think and communicate differently from you. Ask them to paraphrase the meaning and intent they take from the content.
  • When planning an important presentation, do a dry run with a diverse group of co-workers or friends. Ask them to describe the meaning and intent that comes through.
  • During sensitive conversations, stop from time to time to re-state what you’ve heard and understood and ask the other person/people to do the same.
  • Avoid communicating when you’re in a heightened emotional state, especially when angry or frustrated.

You may be thinking that this all sounds like a lot of work. And effective communication does take effort. But managing the fallout from miscommunication can be a lot more onerous. Let me leave you with two quotes that illustrate why striving for empathy, alignment and clarity in communication; and closing the gap between the intent and the impact of your message, is well worth the effort.

One simple truth from Marty Rubin, author of The Boiled Frog Syndrome:

 “When the meaning is unclear there is no meaning.” 

And this pithy comment on consequences from Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:

“So the whole war is because we can't talk to each other.” 


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