Intention vs. Impact

Welcome back to our series the “us” in inclusion, where we talk about how all of us need to take responsibility in the things we do and say every day to make our society a more inclusive place for everyone. We’re in this together, but we all have to do some work individually too. It’s our responsibility, and it will take all of us contributing to make real change.

In our previous segments, we talked about what it means to be an advocate to diverse communities, examining and challenging our own biases, what systemic oppression is and what it looks like in the everyday life of people who experience it, and power and privilege. In this segment, we will talk about the difference and the importance between intent and impact.

As we go about our lives, we are inevitably going to cause harm to others without intending to. None of us want to, at least I hope not, but the fact is we will say things that hurt someone around us. As we continue on our journey of trying to make our society better for everyone and healing some of the wounds caused by systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, neurophobia, and ableism, we need to stop and look at the difference between what we intend to do and what our impact is.

There is blatant discrimination, and there is subtle and unintentional discrimination. As we talked about previously with systemic oppression, we know what obvious forms of discrimination look like—someone yelling a racist, sexist, or homophobic slur out their window as they drive by or physically harming someone because of who they are. But the subtle forms of discrimination that wound us deeply and take their toll are the small, unintentional acts done by the people we see every day: our friends, family, and coworkers.

Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send damaging messages to certain individuals because of their group membership. They generally happen below the level of awareness by well-intentioned members of the dominant group; they are the fruit of unintentional bias. Usually, people perpetuating microaggressions intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm. An example of a microaggression would be a man at work calling their female coworker and friend “baby girl” or “sweetie” out of affection for them. His intent is affection, but the impact may be that his friend feels demeaned and patronized. She may not correct her friend but cringes every time he says it.

I had a good friend say to me before my wedding, “I hope you invite me to your wedding. I’ve never been to a gay wedding before.” While that may seem innocuous, it hurt. My wedding was not for my friends’ or anyone else’s entertainment; it was a sacred and special day for myself and my wife. I did have a conversation with this friend telling them how it made me feel. Thankfully, they took it well and vowed to be more aware of the things they say and do and to educate themselves more on issues in my community that they are unaware of.

Microaggressions like these are the ones that are most common and that most resemble paper cuts. They really do look so minor, but they happen so often that they wear a person down until there are profound impacts on someone’s mental and physical health. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

Often when it’s pointed out to people that something they said was unintentionally harmful, they become defensive and invalidate what the harmed person is saying. This is a totally normal reaction. Everyone tends to measure their responses based on their own interpretation of a situation. You aren’t alone in that, but you also aren’t right. Your reaction is understandable based on the programming that we all receive in our culture, but your reaction is not truth. The person that experiences the harm is the one that needs to be heard; they get to decide what is harmful to them, not you. You may be saying, “But I didn’t mean to.” While that is true, invalidation is another form of microaggression that makes the original harm even worse. If anyone has ever told you, “You are being too sensitive,” you know what that means. I’m bringing up a harm that happened to me, and now you’re telling me there was no harm? I feel even worse. Again, not the intent, but the impact. Invalidation happens so often, a lot of people who are harmed by discrimination just stop bringing it up because it’s too hard and takes up too much energy. If someone has brought something up with you, that means they trust you, so don’t break that trust.

An invalidation is anything that implies that the power imbalances in the world are the way they are because those on top deserve to be on top and those at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom.

Common invalidations include:
“You are overreacting. Don’t be so sensitive.”
“Oh come on, I’m not —ist. That isn’t what I meant.”
“I’m sure they didn’t mean it. I think you’re misunderstanding them.”
“Just ignore them so we can all get along.”

Let’s take a situation with your spouse or partner. You said something that really upset them. You didn’t mean to, but they’re really hurt. In this situation, certainly it matters that you didn’t mean to hurt them, but what matters more is that you did. You need to examine what and how you hurt them and apologize and learn from that situation so that you do better next time. It’s the same with a situation that involves race, gender, sexual orientation, ableism, sexism, or neurodiveristy.

Our privilege (which we talked about in our last segment) can often prevent us from understanding the impact of our actions. This is where listening becomes so important—I mean stepping back from our own experiences, not being defensive, and really listening to the harmed person. We all make mistakes like this, and it’s vitally important how we respond to someone bringing up harm that we caused them.

ALL is a great acronym to remind you what to do when someone says your words or actions hurt them.

A—Apologize. Like, actually apologize and mean it. Avoid “I’m sorry but…” I’m sorry you felt…” “I’m sorry if…” A more appropriate response is “I’m sorry I hurt you. Thank you for telling me. I will learn from this and do better.”

L—Listen. Stop, take a breath, and listen to what this person is telling you. They are likely bringing it up because they care deeply about you and want your relationship to continue and to deepen. They’re trusting you by bringing this up. Try to avoid reacting poorly and breaking that trust.

L—Learn from this situation and do better in the future. Examine more of your comments and thoughts, and be more conscious about what and how you say and do.

We can all be more aware of our impact in the things we say. Words can be weapons, so be careful what you say. If someone tells you what you said was hurtful, remember that we ALL are going to make mistakes, even if we didn’t mean it. But apologizing, listening, and learning helps everyone to feel more accepted and respected.

Sandy Eichel is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant.

Photograph provided by Sandy Eichel