Well, I meant well.

Recently a friend of mine was getting ready to celebrate a milestone birthday.

This friend is awesome. She’s just so good at knowing what to say to you and how to care for you and which kind of munchy snack to bring when you’re feeling blue.

And so, a group of us decided to celebrate her in a big, huge, awesome way…with a big, huge, awesome surprise party.

And boy, were we proud of ourselves! We pulled together the perfect list of people to invite. Found the perfect venue. Made the perfect food.

Except it wasn’t perfect.

We watched as her eyes went wide, then wider, as she walked in the door and braced herself as a tidal wave chorus of “surprise!!” crashed over her.

We watched her pale face reveal that she was absolutely mortified by the evening that awaited her.

We watched and we remembered that she’s a very private person who prefers small gatherings to large crowds. That she likes to keep her personal business…personal. That she really, really hates surprises.

And we realized that, had we stopped to think for just one minute, our good intentions wouldn’t have led to this very bad impact – a terrible experience on her special day.

There’s a big difference between intent and impact. And we mess them up a lot.

  • We intend to show our colleagues how much we care about the company by working super late…but they think we’re sucking up and have no boundaries
  • We intend to provide some straight-up, really helpful critical feedback to a peer…but our direct style causes them to go into a spiral of self-loathing
  • We intend to make someone laugh by making a seemingly-harmless joke about their family…but they find our joke insensitive and stop confiding in us

Let’s break this down, yes?

  • Intent: the outcome we believe we will create by acting a certain way
  • Impact: the actual outcome of our action
  • Intent: what’s in our mind before we do something
  • Impact: the result after we’ve done something
  • Intent: often pure and good
  • Impact: sometimes good, sometimes…not so much

What can turn the best of intentions into the worst impact? Our assumptions.

Often, our intentions are based on the assumption that we know what another person wants. And that assumption often stems from what we ourselves would want. (Gosh, I’d LOVE a surprise party. Surely our friend would love one, too!)

And so we charge ahead, acting from our own lens and our own preferences, forgetting that not everyone wants to be talked to the same way, eat the same foods, practice the same politics, spend money on the same things.

The better option? Before we act, before we speak…take a pause, take a breath, and remember that people are different. Sometimes remarkably so.

When we stop and remember that just because we love/hate something doesn’t mean others will, we create the space to stretch ourselves a bit.

We can engage in the science of recognizing/remembering patterns that indicate people’s preferences (or we can know for sure by asking them). We can engage in the art of adjusting our own actions accordingly.

We can do this authentically. We don’t have to transform into another person or pretend we want what they want.

We can just…adapt a bit. Mentally put ourselves in their shoes. Talk slower or louder. Be more or less direct. Ease up on the swearing or let ‘er rip. Get together at a noisy club or a quiet restaurant.

Yes, our interactions might still require assumptions, and we won’t always get it right. But if we work at it, we’ll get it right more often than if we didn’t take a pause and try to adapt.

Which means our impact will match our intentions a whole lot more.

Which, I can promise you, is a very, very good thing.