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Intent Versus Impact – Are We Really On The Same Page?

By Janel Byrne

Leader thinks: I need to let her know that her negative body language and aggressive comments in yesterday’s meeting were not appropriate and resulted in one of her colleagues, Margaret, feeling uncomfortable. It’s important she knows her impact and I need to give her coaching for how to modify her approach.

Leader says to direct report: “Hey there, your colleagues kind of struggle with your approach – you can come across as not very nice and we don’t want that, right? I think it would be better if you were not as aggressive in the future. Sound OK?”

Leader thinks: Well done self! She knows how she impacted Margaret and can now fix her behavior.

Direct report walks away thinking: Wait a minute! All of my colleagues don’t like me? I’m going to go to each one of them individually and ask them why they are mad at me until they tell me the truth.

There’s what you intended to say – then there’s what you said – and, finally, there’s what the other person actually heard. You can intend wonderful things; it does not mean that’s the impact you had. People walk away with their perceptions, not your intentions.

If you’re up for the challenge, I’d like you to try an experiment. In a group of people, ask one person to volunteer to be the “tapper” and the rest to be “listeners.” Pull the tapper outside and ask them to tap a popular song. A good (and difficult) one to use is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After they practice tapping outside, ask them how many of the listeners they believe will guess the tune they are tapping. I pose this question to you, let’s say there are 10 listeners, how many do you think will guess the tune accurately after the tapper taps? 50%? 75%?

This is an actual experiment, cited in the book Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath, and earned Elizabeth Newton her doctorate in psychology from Stanford in 1990. Newton posed the same question I posed to you above and found the tappers predicted the odds were 50%. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out and listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs—3 songs out of 120. This means the tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, NOT 1 out of every 2 times. This experiment exemplifies the “Curse of Knowledge” – we cannot unknow what we know. To the tapper, the song is so clear, and truly the only one that resonates. To the listeners, they hear “Happy Birthday”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or literally have no idea what song the tapper is trying to get across.

Imagine the conversations you have with those you lead (think about the example at the beginning). It’s clear in your mind what you hope for from them and plan to communicate, so you start “tapping.” Have you ever walked away from a conversation 100% sure you were on the same page, only later to find that the what you expected from the person (or group) is not what they did? Your intent is not always your impact, and the curse of knowledge makes it even more challenging for us to grasp that what is clear to us in our minds is not necessarily what we communicated, let alone what was heard by those we lead.

A quick hack for ensuring your intent matches your impact is a tool called contrasting. Pulled from the book, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High,” contrasting is stating exactly what you DO and DO NOT intend. Re-crafting the leader’s communication from above, “My hope for today’s conversation is to share my observations regarding how you showed up during yesterday’s meeting and the impact I witnessed. Specifically, when you said you were shocked that Margaret didn’t understand the simplest processes – while crossing your arms and using a stern tone, I saw her shut down and look physically upset. I don’t believe you were hoping to impact Margaret that way. My intent is to better understand what you were hoping for and brainstorm together how best to achieve that hope in the future. Can I hear your perspective?”

Communication is a life-long journey, so don’t stop with contrasting. Every conversation is an opportunity to develop and learn how you can continue to improve. A final tool for you this month is called stop, start, continue. It’s a simple method to receive in the moment about what you should start doing, stop doing and continue doing to ensure your intent for the conversation is truly what people are walking away with. To coach our leader from the example:

  • Start: identifying specific examples of problematic behavior and their impact
  • Stop: using vague language that results in your direct report believing all of their colleagues may not like them
  • Continue: to have timely conversations with your direct report so they know what they are doing well and their opportunities for growth.

Janel Byrne, MSW, SHRM-CP, is an organizational effectiveness manager at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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