In his online communication course, John Ullmen, a communication expert and organisational behaviour professor, introduces a highly overlooked concept in interpersonal communications: the intent-impact gap.
It is a simple but powerful idea. When we initiate communication with somebody, we have a purpose. We might be saying something because we want to give advice, get information, complain, or make a joke. But we rarely think about what the other side in front of us receives. We assume that the other side gets exactly what we wanted to say. This happens because we assume that when we communicate, we transfer the exact meaning in our head to the other side, and that the approach we use to communicate is the best one to achieve that.
But reality says that what we have in mind is not what comes out from our mouths. It is way to complicated to convey all through words. Therefore there is no way for the other side to know exactly know what is in our mind, and what our real intention is. The other side in a communication process judges us only based on the exact words that come from our mouths and what we do, or our gestures and expressions while we say and do it.
The problem doesn’t stop here. When the response of the other side is not what we have expected, we get irritated, disappointed, or even angry. What is happening is that the other side is responding to what she has heard from us. Add to that that our opponent also can’t exactly convey her intention through her words, gestures, and expressions. And so goes on the miscommunication and widens the gap.
This is what Ullmen means with intent-impact gap.
The intention of our communication does not equal its impact.
I think realising that this gap in communication exist is by itself very illuminating. You realise that the excuse I didn’t mean what I said isn’t that lame after all. And given that most people are not expert communicators, this happens so often in our daily life that we really should start questioning how often we have misjudged the intentions of others. We also should wonder how many verbal arguments in your lives were unnecessary and could have been avoided.
I also think that by realising the existence of this gap, we have to reconsider most of our daily communication. Suddenly, all that we say is under question. Is the other side hearing what I want to say? How often did I unintentionally hurt others with what I have said?
The intent-impact gap can especially be wide and quit difficult to navigate when both sides engaged in communicating are of different genders. Generally speaking, women and men use different thinking and communication approaches. Some studies claim that men focus on what is said, whereas women focus on what is not said, on the body language and facial expression. And since most of communication happens through body language and facial expressions more than through the content of what is said, women are slightly better communicators. If men focus more on the content of what is said, then they are prone to fall in the gap between intent and impact more than women, because as we found out, what is said is most of the time not what is meant.
I think science is still in early stages in understanding brains, and how they differ between men and women. But regardless of research, the intent-impact gap is real and realising that it exist is an important awareness tool. This realisation requires us to become better communicators and reflect on what we say, trying to making sure the other side understands what we really mean.
I know by experience that this is tiresome and sometimes annoying. People think that I’m a reluctant person, and that I care too much about what others think of me, when I want to make sure that the other side has understood me well. That or they assume that I think they are stupid when I repeate the same thing several times. It is challenging to strike a balance here. However what helps is listing to others well and trying to think about what to say instead of interrupting and just saying it.
Communicating is one of the things in life that we can’t keep improving enough.