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?