Over the last several months, I’ve spent a good amount of time reflecting and practicing self-improvement techniques. One area I’ve been working on is communication. More specifically, I’m focusing on bridging the intent impact gap when I communicate and listen. I’ll get into what the intent impact gap means in a second. Being able to stop and think about who I am as a person and how I can continue to improve wasn’t something I had much time to do prior to engineering my layoff earlier this year.
I’m really grateful that I was able to get paid to quit my stressful 10-year job because my lifestyle has changed dramatically for the better. Now I am working on projects I truly care about. And I have more time and flexibility to learn new things, reflect, pivot, and strengthen my character and resolve. Growth can be so hard at times, but getting to the point when you start to see results is SO worth it.
Please Tell Me Like It Is, Thanks!
What I love about my two best friends, who are quite different in character, is their honest feedback and communication about who I am as a person. They know my strengths and what makes me unique. They see all sorts of good qualities in me that I never realized I had until they mentioned them. And (ha!) they also know all the things that I’m really bad at!
True friends aren’t afraid to tell us when we do or say something wrong or inadequately. One area my friends have long encouraged me to work on is communication. It’s not that I’m rude or never speak up, but communicating isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I’m glad that I’ve improved over the years so far, but I still have more room to grow.
Taking Hints To Heart
I’m a complete introvert and verbal communication can be so awkward for me at times. I know my fellow introverts out there know exactly what I mean. We envy extroverts who can effortlessly talk the hind legs off a donkey, even with complete strangers! Stick me in front of a computer and I can craft an eloquent string of sentences together. But put me in front of people and I’ll trip on my words, blank out on what I wanted to say, or lose people while I’m talking. I liken it to trying to tell a joke and not being able to deliver the punch line, especially if put on the spot.
Here are some of my friends’ hints that I need to work on my communication skills:
“You’re so random! Try to introduce new topics and include more context when you’re talking. Sometimes I have NO idea what you’re talking about and it’s really frustrating. I know you aren’t trying to annoy me, but how am I supposed to follow along your thoughts without any type of segue or frame of reference?”
“Don’t let people walk over you. You can’t let people take advantage of you when they don’t hold up their end of the deal. I know you want to be nice to people all the time, but sometimes you have to be stern and more assertive to get what you deserve.”
“Ask more questions and look engaged when you’re talking to people. Otherwise, they’ll think you aren’t interested in talking to them. I know you’re not snobby at all, but if you don’t nod as you’re listening or ask them about their interests, they may think you don’t care.” (side note – I’ve since learned that extroverts are really good at non-verbal communication like nods and gestures that show they are actively listening versus some of us introverts who tend to just stare blankly when we listen without using any body language)
“You should stand up and defend yourself and defend me too. I need your support when things go wrong. Don’t be timid and scared to speak up if someone is rude or offensive, or if someone tries to take advantage of you being too nice.”
“You should take a communications and negotiations class. I think it will really help you. When I attended one it really helped me improve how I speak and interact with other people.”
So you can see I have some things to work on. It’s challenging to change our bad habits, but everything they’ve said makes a lot of sense. And I’m taking their hints to heart.
Aligning Intent And Impact
At the advice of my friends I started taking some classes in communication and negotiations this summer. Some of the professors’ advice is stuff we’ve all heard before, but nevertheless is good to reinforce. However, a recent lesson on intent versus impact stood out to me that I want to sear into my brain and share with you.
Communication can be super complicated. And a lot of times when we communicate, our actual intent can be quite different from what our listeners perceive our intent to be. In other words, the impact our words and expressions have on an audience can be radically different from the message we meant to get across. A light bulb went off in my head when the intent-impact gap was brought up as a common communication problem because I’ve been on both sides of this gap on countless occasions.
Intent = What we hope our audience will think, feel and do.
Impact = What they actually think, feel and do.
When there’s a large gap between intent and impact, a speaker’s initial reaction may be to pass the blame to their listeners. We’ve all been guilty of doing this before. But what we should be doing instead is figuring out what we could have done better – perhaps we didn’t provide enough background, lacked emotion, were disorganized, didn’t tell any compelling stories, or failed to look at things from their point of view.
There are an endless number of situations when communication is misinterpreted, misunderstood or simply missed. Nobody wants things to turn out that way, but they often do. Bridging the gap between intent and impact is something we should continually work on in the relationships that matter to us most. And that’s one of my main goals that I’ve been working on. When we communicate better, we feel more connected, get more done, build stronger relationships, and fight a whole lot less.
Analyze How Our Intentions Actually Came Across
One of the ways I’ve learned so far to bridge the intent-impact gap is to ask questions and analyze situations. Instead of only assessing our communication skills based on our intent, we should analyze our actual impact on others because that’s how they are evaluating us. When we ask a recipient or an observer how we handled a specific situation, we can learn what types of adjustments to make the next time. I am trying to do this more often!
Let me give you an example of when I asked for feedback from a colleague and learned how my intent during a conference call was totally missed. The impact was not what I expected and it blew up in my face.
When An Innocent Question Backfired
During a stressful period at work a while ago, one of my favorite coworkers, Sanjay, and I were under a lot of pressure. Our respective bosses were counting on us to make amends with a huge client on a bunch of different issues. They sent Sanjay and I across the country to New York City to meet with our largest, most demanding, and total PITA client to smooth things over. The pressure was on.
We arrived at our hotel the day before our big client meeting and dialed into a conference call with our bosses and MD to talk last minute strategy. Things were going well on the call until I randomly asked my boss, “Do you think I should mention Project 6 to the client tomorrow?” There was a short pause and then boss got rather curt. He sounded really irritated I was asking, said it was irrelevant, didn’t understand why the client would care, and so forth. Boy was I sorry I asked! I quickly moved on to the next topic and we wrapped things up.
After the call, Sanjay triple checked the phone line had been disconnected and then turned to me and said, “Wow, Bob is such an asshole! He just threw you under the bus!” He was referring to my boss. It was a shock to me too because normally my boss is super supportive.
Seeing The Bigger Picture
Sanjay and I proceeded to talk through what had just gone down. I explained my intent was to be as prepared as possible for the client meeting. I wanted my boss’s expert advice on whether discussing Project 6 with the client would help us look good. Negotiations and crisis management are some of his strengths so I wanted his opinion.
What we gathered from the unintended impact was on my boss was: 1) it frustrated him that I didn’t present my own opinion and couldn’t make a judgement call myself, 2) he wasn’t familiar enough with Project 6 to give constructive advice at the last minute, 3) I didn’t give him any context, 4) he probably felt put on the spot and got defensive to hide his embarrassment, 5) he wanted to look good for the MD who was also listening (his boss) by showing authority, 6) he felt I was getting distracted from the agenda we already set, and 7) he was feeling a lot of stress too and worried I wouldn’t be able to present well in front of the client.
Without talking to Sanjay about the conference call blunder, I don’t think I would have been able to see all those different angles. It really opened my eyes.
I also asked Sanjay for his advice on how I could have better handled the situation. He suggested that I work on being more opinionated and offer specific suggestions instead of simply asking broad questions. Taking a more thorough approach in the future would show I’m prepared, have my own opinions, can identify benefits of taking a specific action, and still value my boss’s input and respect his final say on the matter. The easier I make things for my boss, the better. I want to make him look good in front of his boss after all.
Practice Bridging The Intent Impact Gap For Better Results
So, how I probably should have asked my boss on that conference call is something like this:
“I looked through the client agenda and want to add a discussion on Project 6. I realize it’s a last minute, but I feel strongly about benefits a, b and c. I’ve prepared several slides as well that I think will go over well with the client because of x, y and z. It should help increase our overall chances at repairing the client relationship. Do you have any objections or other points I should add?”
I was really grateful Sanjay had been listening on that call and was able to give me that advice afterwards. It helped me understand why my boss reacted the way he did. And I learned how to better present my ideas and questions during meetings and get more respect from my boss.
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