Ever had a well-meaning conversation go slightly off the rails? You intended one thing, but it landed quite differently with your friend or partner, leading to misunderstandings or hurt feelings? These conflicts erupt in the space between intent and impact, and getting clear about how to manage intent vs impact can be the key to smoother communication and stronger relationships.
As a couples counselor and a relationship coach, I know that when couples are struggling with communication or conflict, the difference between intent and impact is often where they’re missing each other. Learning to accept each other’s good intentions while taking responsibility for their impact can be the path forward. In this article, I’m breaking down intention versus impact, and how you can use this concept in your own relationship to resolve conflict, improve communication, and strengthen your connection.
Intention versus Impact in Practice
We’re sitting at a table, looking over menus figuring out what we want to order. I accidentally knock over your water glass and it spills into your lap. Did I mean to do that? Of course not! But that doesn’t change the fact that you are now soaking wet as a direct result of something I did. I may explain that it was unintentional, but the fact of the matter is, nothing I say will change the fact that you are now drenched by the cup of water I spilled. I did it, I can’t undo it, and I need to accept that. It was never my intent to spill a cup of water onto you, but the impact is that it happened and now you’re soaked.
With tangible examples like the one above, it’s easy to see the difference between intention and impact. But when it comes to emotional hurt, it can feel more complicated. When we receive information from our partner or a loved one that we failed to meet a need they had, or we hurt their feelings in some way, we often feel compelled to explain and justify our actions in hopes that clarifying our intent can undo the impact. If I can just convince you that I didn’t mean to hurt you, then you won’t feel hurt anymore, we reason.
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Unfortunately, this approach can cause more damage. Instead of acknowledging and taking accountability for the pain I caused (even unintentionally!), I am now trying to justify and defend my actions, which often results in dismissing and invalidating the other person’s feelings.
Taking Responsibility for Your Impact in Relationships
Returning to the cup of water analogy, if I drop all of my justifications for why my actions were unintentional and instead focus my attention on the impact my actions had on the other person, I can have empathy for how it made them feel and how we can move forward from here. When I do this, they might say, “I totally get it was an accident, but maybe from now on we move the water away from the menus so it doesn’t happen again because now I’m soaked and kind of uncomfortable.”
When we don’t acknowledge the impact, we increase the likelihood of us unintentionally or accidentally hurting someone we care about because we aren’t gaining the insight into their experience of our actions. When we just say, “well I didn’t mean to!” and move on, what’s stopping us from accidentally knocking over another cup of water into their lap? We can’t learn from an experience if we don’t have a full picture of what happened. Becoming defensive and dismissing our partner’s pain limits our understanding of the impact our choices and behaviors have on the people around us. It also perpetuates the conflict rather than seeking a resolution.
So, rather than continuing to accidentally knock glass after glass onto my partner’s lap (or do well-intended things that hurt their feelings), I instead acknowledge and take responsibility for the impact of my actions the first time. I am showing them that regardless of intention, I am more curious and interested in how they were impacted by my actions. It’s normal to want to emphasize when we didn’t mean to hurt someone, but when we can put that on the backburner temporarily to make space for the other person to let us know how it impacted them, it can help them feel more connected to us and more emotionally safe to share difficult things with us in the future. Accepting responsibility for our impact, regardless of our intentions, tells our partner that their experience is valid and that’s what matters most.
Emotion Regulation and Intent vs Impact
When we’re in distress, we tend to feel emotionally dysregulated. In these vulnerable moments we crave connection. Specifically we want to feel safe, loved, and understood.
Your partner may come to you because they’re feeling hurt about something that happened in your relationship. If you get defensive (to alleviate your own feelings of discomfort), you do not signal a safe space for your partner — in fact you signal the opposite. If instead you examine your role in your partner’s pain and take accountability for your actions, you show your partner that you prioritize relationship security and safety over your own bruised ego. You prioritize the “we” over the “me.”
From an attachment perspective, when we are open to feedback from our partner and spend time validating their experience while accepting our role in their pain, we are cultivating a secure attachment and strengthening our bond.
Giving Credit for Good Intentions
Now I’m going to take what I’ve told you and flip it around: While impact is more important than intention, intention is still important to keep in mind, especially when you’re feeling upset with your partner. Assuming bad intentions where there are none can magnify your own pain, make fights worse, and ultimately damage your relationship.
Extend grace to your partner the same way you would extend grace to yourself when you make a mistake with good intentions. This builds trust by signaling to your partner that they are much more than a single mistake and you see this in them. You can do this while still acknowledging your hurt feelings and asking for them to be addressed. But when you give your partner the benefit of the doubt, you leave room for them to grow.
When you criticize or shame someone who has hurt you, it rarely leads to this person going above and beyond to do better. Instead, they often feel discouraged, not good enough, and wonder what the point of trying is. When we acknowledge the intent and process through the impact together, we can both leave the conversation feeling more encouraged. The hurt partner feels heard and validated in their experience, and the hurting partner feels that, despite the misstep, their partner still thinks well of them. In addition, the partner who unintentionally hurt the other now has more information on how to prevent this in the future. A win win!
Why We Struggle with Intent vs Impact
Despite this sounding straightforward on paper, taking accountability for pain or hurt we didn’t intend to cause is very difficult in practice. We have lightning-fast internal reactions to what our partner communicates to us, and sometimes we come to conclusions that make us feel bad about ourselves. This can be painful, so we try to make that discomfort go away by getting defensive, justifying, or explaining what we meant. If I can just convince you that I didn’t mean to hurt you, then you won’t feel hurt anymore… and then I won’t have to feel this way about myself anymore!
So instead of acknowledging that I haven’t been spending much time with my partner, I deflect and justify why I had to prioritize work. Or maybe I get escalated — “So you think I’m a bad partner?” and then a fight ensues. When our partner expresses that we have hurt them, it’s painful for us, too. It sucks to admit that I unknowingly hurt someone I love. Sometimes this pain is big enough to cause us to show up in ways that protect ourselves (defensiveness) and unfortunately, dismiss our partner.
How to Take Responsibility for Your Impact in Relationships
So, how can you take responsibility for your impact in relationships? Here are a couple of practical steps you can take:
- Apply emotional regulation tools
Staying emotionally regulated enough to not react defensively when your partner tells you about something they’re upset about requires the ability to manage your own internal emotional experience. This skill requires emotional intelligence — remaining aware of what is going on inside your body and mind, self-soothing as necessary, and staying present with your partner.
Externally, you could be making eye contact with your partner, orienting your body toward them, holding their hand as they share, and saying validating statements like, “What you’re saying makes sense” or “It makes sense that you feel that way.” With these verbal and nonverbal cues, I’m focusing solely on my partner’s experience and showing them that I care to understand what they are going through and how I contributed to it. This creates an emotionally safe space where your partner will be more willing to be vulnerable with you.
- Practice attunement
Responding to your partner this way requires a strong sense of internal attunement (or being “in tune” with your emotions). Internal or self-attunement is being in tune with your internal world – your beliefs, emotions, and experiences. This is similar to emotion regulation, as you are checking in with your mind and body when you notice strong emotions in order to (1) recognize the emotion, (2) explore the information the feeling brings with it and (3), provide yourself with compassion and self soothing.
This may take a bit of practice outside of difficult conversations with your partner to get in the habit, but this is what it might look like:
My partner shares that they feel disappointed and hurt by the lack of quality time we’ve spent together and shares the belief/fear that they worry the relationship isn’t a priority for me anymore. They ask for more intentional time together from me.
I may immediately feel guilt or shame — my partner has just told me I have dropped the ball and now they’ve been hurt by my actions. Rather than reacting with that guilt and shame, most likely by getting defensive, I can respond to my own feelings of guilt and shame.
First, I can name the feelings: I feel guilty for letting them down, maybe even ashamed. I may feel a little angry or even misunderstood.
Then, I can explore what information these emotions brought to my attention. Based on my partner’s experience, it makes sense that I would feel bad that I disappointed them. I may feel sad about this because I know I’ve been busy with work and that it’s impacting our relationship.
Finally, I can respond to these emotions with self-compassion and work to soothe them. I may remind myself that right now, it’s not about my hurt feelings, it’s about my partner’s. I can remind myself that I know I’m doing the best I can and my partner knows that too, despite this mistake. I can validate that I didn’t intend to do this, but also know it will be more helpful to the relationship to accept the impact rather than defend my intent. To soothe, I may take a couple of deep breaths and try to ground myself back in my body.
If emotion regulation becomes too difficult and you notice yourself becoming escalated, it’s okay and encouraged to take a break. However, if you need a break, let your partner know for how long and follow back up on the conversation when the break is over.
Support for Happy, Healthy Relationships
I hope this discussion of intent vs. impact helped you see the value in taking responsibility for your impact in relationships, while maintaining compassion for yourself and others after mistakes. I know these skills can make or break relationships, and I know that they can be developed with practice.
If you would like to do this valuable work with me, get in touch. Schedule a free consultation appointment and we can discuss your hopes and goals.
Meet Kara: a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying emotionally focused, systemic and evidence-based approaches to help deepen your understanding of yourself, increase your emotional connections, and create lasting change.
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