The Intention-Impact Gap

Years ago I had a hard conversation with a Black classmate.  He explained to me the experience of being Black in America—what it was like to worry about his own safety and that of his loved ones every day, of seeing innocent Black men killed at the hands of police, the history and ongoing oppression of racism, both overt and implicit…  It was overwhelming.  I said, “I can’t imagine what that must be like…”  At the time I honestly meant it as an expression of humility.  In retrospect, I could (should?) have said, “I know I will never experience what you experience, AND as I think about what you have shared with me, I AM imagining what that must be like, and it’s overwhelming.”

Though I had intended my words to be connecting, he told me in no uncertain terms that they had the opposite impact.  Really, he asked?  You really can’t imagine what it would be like to send your son out every morning knowing he could be profiled by police?  You can’t imagine your family being captured and sold into slavery, separated mercilessly on an auction block, or hunted, mutilated and murdered for simply being different?  How can you not imagine it?  Where was my sense of shared humanity, he demanded? My declaration of “I can’t imagine,” far from showing caring or understanding, signaled to him my unwillingness to relate.

At first I felt defensive and misunderstood.  Why was he rejecting me when I honestly thought I was being supportive?  I had to think about it a while, and really listen for what he was saying.  It was painful and humbling to realize that he was right, at least partially.  I could imagine all of those things, but maybe I didn’t want to.  Maybe it was too uncomfortable, and I exercised my privilege of not having to think about it, because it didn’t affect me personally?  Maybe it made me feel helpless?  Maybe I knew on some level that I harbor racist and prejudiced biases and ideas?  My classmate was teaching me the difference between empathy and sympathy.  Brené Brown makes the distinction thusly:  “Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.”  I had intended the former; my impact was the latter.

I can own this now, years later.  I practice more mindfulness around my words.  I watch for my impact—is it what I intend?  If something I pitch lovingly lands hurtfully, then I need to examine my actions, and maybe even my (deeper) intentions.  I don’t control how someone receives my message, and I can also do my best to express myself the most honestly, authentically, and clearly.  I hardly ever say, “I can’t imagine” anymore.  Because if I want to support someone, I must imagine.  The person needs to know that I’m doing my best to relate—to connect.

Today when someone says they “can’t imagine” my experience, I notice my own discomfort—these words feel ambiguous at first.  So I need to look around.  What is our relationship?  What is the context of our encounter?  What story do I tell about their intention?  How does my story impact their impact on me?

As communicators in relationship, if we are truly committed to fostering connection and community, then we must step up to an important challenge.  We must all mind the intention-impact gap, as both senders and receivers of any given message.  Marc Lesser recommends:

  • Notice how you are impacted by other’s words. In particular when you feel hurt or vulnerable, do you assume intention? Does blame arise? Can you experiment with being more curious?
  • Notice how your words impact others. Pay attention to when you sense that there may be a gap between your intention and the impact of your words. Can you be open and explore how to align your words, intentions, and their impact?

When did you last fall into the gap?  What did it cost you, your counterpart, and/or your relationship? 

How can we each and all help one another mind (and bridge) the gap?

What Do You Mean By That?

“When we go to a foreign country, we know acutely when we don’t share a common language.  Not so in US political discussions.”

I paraphrase Sharon, my Braver Angels pal.  I had just described what I mean when I say “liberal,” and why I prefer to identify myself as “progressive.”  And though we both consider ourselves to be “Blue,” it turns out that our definitions of these words diverge widely.  I think neither of us uses the words interchangeably (do you?), and I wonder if it has ever caused us to misunderstand each other.  What comes to mind and body for you when you hear these labels?  What about “conservative,” “right wing,” or “Red?”

When I read/hear “liberal,” I cringe a little and feel defensive.  Maybe that’s because it’s used so often as a pejorative term anymore by “the right,” like when they jeer people of my ilk (which is what, exactly, though?) as “libtards,” (a dual pejorative against both “liberals” and people with developmental disabilities).  I resist labels, especially when people apply them to me without knowing anything about me.  I suspect we all dislike this, no?  To me, “liberal” means loose, without boundaries or limits, mindless, uncontrolled—as in suntan oil—“apply liberally.”  Maybe I have internalized the contempt of the other side?

Google search

I prefer to identify as progressive because it feels more intentional.  When we progress, it is toward something.  We have a goal.  We serve a purpose, and we walk with conviction to values.  Those values, for me, include equity, compassion, integrity, fairness, and the infinite, dynamic balance between what serves the individual and what serves the collective.  And I absolutely value meeting my political opposition on common ground, looking for shared values and goals to manifest in collaboration, rather than in competition.  This is the opposite of the prevailing idea of the word, I think?

Google search

I think Sharon’s definitions of the two words are more commonly shared.  She sees “liberal” as the general term that defines those who identify as “Blue,” who share and advocate for values attributed to “the left,” such as environmental protection, climate change action, antiracism, social justice, financial regulation, social safety nets, public healthcare, gun control, police reform, etc.  In her mind, “progressive” defines folks on “far left” of the spectrum, whose rhetoric and tactics are more aggressive, and who express much less willingness to negotiate or compromise on their goals and policies.

Tonight I invite you to participate in an experiment.

Sit down, relax; take some deep breaths.  Free your mind and unwind your body.  Feel safe to be totally honest and vulnerable with yourself.  Choose a few words from the list below and free associate for a minute or two.  Notice the images, words, emotions, and physical sensations that emerge when you read, say, and hear each word.  Don’t judge your reactions; they are neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.  They are simply your personal associations.  Write down what emerges for each word.  Take your time.

When you come across an opportunity (or seek it next—or maybe it will find you), invite someone you trust to do the same for the words you chose.   Assure them that you will not judge or criticize their associations (and then don’t).  Maybe offer them to choose some words for you both to associate.

Then compare notes—share.  Consider setting some ground rules, such as mutual non-judgment and respect, before starting.

What does the idea of this personal exercise and exchange bring up for you, in mind, body, and spirit?  What do you make of your reaction?  How might this exercise help you in political conversations, perhaps the way a translator might help you in a foreign country?  How might it also help you in other relationships and domains of life? 

Please feel free to share your associations and exchanges in the comments.

Onward in curiosity, humility, generosity, and connection, my friends.

Word list:













Right wing

Left wing






Climate Change


Public Health


Social Justice



Police reform

Gun control

















What else?