#MeToo has had several significant effects on some very important issues. On the sidelines, it has also surfaced an interesting phenomenon: what social media is calling the ‘non-pology’. This is a statement that purports to be an apology, but which ends up not being one, because the speaker or writer justifies their actions by saying that they did not mean any harm, and therefore they do not actually need to say sorry.

This type of non-pology neatly encapsulates the difference between intent and impact.

It also points towards an important lesson: intent and impact are very different things. Intent is internal: what we intend to achieve is inside our heads. Unless we explain it to others, it may be completely unclear—and others may interpret our actions very differently. Impact is the effect your actions have on others, which may or may not be what you intended. Despite the best of intentions, impact can be very negative, which is why it is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It is important to understand this, and be aware of it, because it affects behaviour and the assumptions we make about ourselves and others.

The ladder of inference

There is a useful tool that can help us to understand more about this, called ‘the ladder of inference’. This is a phrase coined by Chris Argyris, a guru of modern organisational behaviour and learning. The idea is that when we see or hear something, we ‘select’ data from what is available. We then use that data to infer meaning, based on our previous experience and beliefs. We make assumptions about that meaning, and draw conclusions, which in turn affect our beliefs, often reinforcing them.

The bit that we often infer is someone else’s intent. By imputing motives to someone, we can often turn a completely neutral situation into a very negative one instead, and damage relationships over a long period.

You might, for example, be in a meeting with someone, and you notice them glance at their watch as you are talking. You might decide that means that they are not interested, and can’t wait to get out of the meeting. From there, you jump to the assumption that it is not worth trying to engage with them on this subject, and possibly any others either. When you get another meeting request from them the next day, you might therefore turn it down. However, it might actually be the case that they were really interested, but recognised that there was not enough time to discuss it fully at that moment. They therefore decided to try to arrange another meeting to give you both enough time to talk more fully about a particular aspect. By not saying that, however, and making sure that you both understood the situation, a promising partnership has been lost.

Questions, feedback and information

The lesson here is to ask questions, and also surface your own thinking. Voicing feedback clearly, in terms of the impact that other people’s actions have had on you and your thinking, is a good start. You also, however, need to ask about their intention. Acknowledging the behaviour you have noticed, and simply asking about it, can help to avoid you making assumptions. Noticing the effect of your behaviour on others can also help to avoid having the wrong impact.

Plan for impact

This will matter in any interaction, from internal within your organisation, to meetings with clients, and at any level. Listening, watching body language, and inquiring about motivation or intention are vital steps towards understanding each other more clearly.

As subject matter experts, you are likely to need to develop relationships with people from quite different backgrounds, with varying levels of understanding of particular subjects. They are also likely to speak a range of different languages, both ‘real’ languages and technical jargon, which can also lead to possible misunderstandings. Taking time to develop the skills to recognise leaps of assumption in yourself, and also the effects of your actions on others, is likely to short-circuit possible misunderstandings, and enable you to have more productive discussions, and build stronger longer-term relationships.

And if you do fall foul of the intent/impact difference? Listen, and apologise. Your intention did not matter, only the impact. It is very difficult to mend relationships that start off on the wrong foot, even if they have done so through misunderstandings and assumptions. Listening can help you learn how not to have the same effect in future.

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