In diversity and inclusion work, one of the hardest concepts for people to grasp is the difference between intent and impact. Often, when we’re told that something we did or said was hurtful, demeaning, discriminatory etc., we’ll respond sincerely, “That wasn’t my intent. I’m sorry you were offended.” Notice the switch to passive voice: “I’m sorry you were offended rather” than, “I’m sorry I offended you” putting the blame on the victim for being offended.
Whether we have the purest of intentions or not, comments and actions can have a negative impact. When I went through diversity training years ago, I remember the facilitator explaining the difference this way. “Let’s say I come roaring out of the parking garage and run you over and you die. That wasn’t my intention, but you’re still dead!”
We judge ourselves by our intent; we judge others by their impact. There’s a really interesting example in this article: Confusing Intent with Impact. A professor at a small religious college in Louisiana made a speech to the students where he said women were turning themselves into a “crack house” by having multiple sex partners. And he encouraged women to “mow your lawn,” an apparent reference to their pubic hair. Not surprisingly, there was some backlash. The professor’s response was, “I am sorry to hear that some of you were offended [note the use of passive voice] by the tone [it wasn’t the tone; it was the words] of my preaching at the chapel this week. I am grateful that you brought this issue to my attention and I ask your forgiveness. It was never my intention to cause anyone distress.” In our interactions with others, we must own both our intent and our impact.
Unfortunately, when we have good intentions, we tend to minimize any negative impact our words or actions may cause. We may dismiss people we’ve offended as being too sensitive or simply misunderstanding. Even attempting to put ourselves in the other person’s place often doesn’t work. We have not lived their lives where they may have experienced a continuous series of micro-aggressions and yours is just one of many. The best response is “I’m sorry. Tell me more.” All of us are works in progress, and if we use these incidents as opportunities for growth, everyone will benefit.