Sometimes, we say and do things with good intentions that don’t result in what was intended. That’s because intent is about our motivation – what we hope someone will think, feel, understand, do, or say when we do or say something, while impact is about what the individual we were talking or doing something with experiences. Ideally, our intent will align with our impact, but we know that’s not always what happens.

There’s a safe way to appreciate the potential difference between intent and impact. Just think of a time when you said something you thought was funny to a group of people, and no one laughed. Or worse yet, they got upset. You can say they were a tough crowd, or that they just didn’t get your humor, or they were too sensitive, but it’s still likely that moment was, at best, awkward. For you and for them.

Taking the safety net of a humorous example away, what happens when your impact eroded trust in a relationship that mattered to you? For example, let’s say you shared a health concern about a friend with a group of mutual friends. You thought the concern was common knowledge and wanted others to know so they would be supportive and sensitive. But, as you learned later from your hurt and angry friend, no one else knew about the situation. They had shared it with you in confidence. You knew they were a more private individual, but because you are a more open person, you never imagined they wouldn’t share it within your circle. Mistakes like this happen, but chances are it would probably take some time for your friend to fully trust you again.

Why is it important to understand the difference between intent and impact? One reason is because being aware of the potential impact of our words, regardless of our intent, makes it easier for us to avoid saying something that unintentionally hurts or offends someone. Also, if we are aware of the potential impact of our actions, we are more likely to do something that makes life better for others.

The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.

John Burroughs

How can we align our intent with our impact? Here are a few ideas:

Our intentions don’t always translate into the desired impact, but by being mindful of our words and actions, open to feedback, willing to apologize, and aware of behavior style differences we can better align our intent with our impact.