Negative Impact Happens
Have you ever said or done things with the best intentions that ended up being hurtful or damaging? Or maybe someone said or did something that didn’t sit right with you? You’re not alone. This post provides some tips for how to respond to such situations.
Messages we send or actions we take are often received differently than intended. This can happen more often when cultural differences are involved, because our culture influences how we see things. We also carry many unconscious biases and prejudices and can unintentionally do and say things that exclude, marginalize or offend others on the basis of race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.
“As part of a social group, I need to understand how my socialization into that group may, outside of my awareness, impact my thinking and feeling.” Dr. Valerie Batts, Executive Director and Co-Founder of VISIONS, inc.
Positions of power also magnify the impact we have. People who have the power to hire and fire others often have more impact when they speak or act because of the power they wield. Services providers have power in relationship to the clients that they serve. Negative impact happens often in organizations, yet most don’t have a healthy way to respond. If we learn to address negative impact constructively, we can build stronger working relationships and greater trust. I first learned “Be Aware of Intent and Impact” as a communication guideline in a VISIONS, Inc. workshop many years ago. By acknowledging both intent and impact, we can see things more clearly and communicate more powerfully.
Being Responsible for Negative Impact
It is important to take responsibility for the impact we have, without shifting focus to ourselves and our intentions. Most of us are programmed to go into defense mode when someone gives us feedback that is critical in any way. If we can get away from a right/wrong, good/bad way of thinking, we can hear feedback about negative impact openly and non-defensively. Being responsible does not mean taking blame or admitting guilt. It means being able to respond — to acknowledge the impact we have had, learn what there is to learn and, if necessary, commit to doing things differently in the future.
When people give feedback, they are giving us an opportunity to learn and to strengthen the relationship. Feedback doesn’t always come in a pretty package. Anger and defensiveness may make it hard to hear. If we remain open and listening deeply, we can discover the gift being offered. We may even choose to thank the person being open with us. Here are five tips for being responsible when we have a negative impact:
1. Check out assumptions. If you suspect you did something that had a negative impact, stop wondering and ask. Be prepared to listen to what the person has to say. Ask permission. There is no need to go into a long story. Just stick to the interaction you are concerned about.
Example: “I’m concerned about something I did in our meeting the other day and how you might have felt. Is it okay if I ask you about this?”
And, if they agree: “When, I made a joke about you being left-handed, I was concerned that it might have offended you. Was this offensive to you? ”
2. Acknowledge impact first and foremost. If you get feedback about negative impact, focus on fully hearing and acknowledging the other person. Don’t beat yourself up or defend yourself. Just be present for the person or people who felt the impact and make sure you hear them fully before responding. You may choose to thank the person for bringing it to your attention. You may also choose to reflect back what you heard to make sure you are fully getting it.
Example: “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about this. I’m hearing that what I said came across to you as disrespectful and was upsetting to you.”
3. Resist justifying or making excuses. It is very human to want to explain ourselves and justify why we did what we did. We don’t want others to think we are bad people. But, justifying ourselves isn’t always necessary or helpful. It often comes from our need to defend ourselves rather than concern about the impact on others or the relationship.
4. Be accountable. Acknowledge what you did or didn’t do. Acknowledge the impact and state what you are committed to do differently in the future. Be authentic, rather than trying to get it “right”. Follow through with the commitments you make.
What I did or didn’t do: “I realize that I didn’t think about how my words and my tone might affect you. I said things that were offensive to you.”
Impact: “I see that this was hurtful to you and to our relationship.”
Commitment: “I’m committed to a supportive and trusting working relationship. I will be more thoughtful about how I speak to you in the future.”
5. Acknowledge your own needs and your own process. It may not be a good time for you to hear feedback. Or the feedback may be pushing your buttons. If you aren’t ready to hear or respond to feedback, continue the conversation at another time. You may need time to “try on” the feedback and see how it sits. If there is an opportunity for growth – for example, understanding your own biases, or something you didn’t know was offensive – look for ways to learn. Don’t expect the person giving you feedback to be your teacher.
Giving Feedback About Negative Impact
Telling someone they did something you weren’t comfortable with isn’t always easy, especially when there are power dynamics, different ways of communicating, and different ways of seeing things. Our way of being is just as important as what we say. Here are five tips:
1. Assume positive intent. Until proven otherwise, assume that the individual’s intentions are positive. This will make it easier to give them feedback without blaming and shaming. Approach them as someone who wants to have a positive relationship with you, rather than as an adversary.
2. Ask permission. Ask if it’s okay to give feedback. If they aren’t open to it at the moment, there may be another time that would work better.
Example: “I’d like to give you some feedback about the meeting we had yesterday. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
3. Be specific. Be specific about what actions or inactions had the impact. This will help the other person know what they can do differently in the future. Speak from your experience and state what you saw or heard.
Example: “In our meeting yesterday, I brought up an idea I’d been thinking about. I didn’t hear any response from you about the idea.
4. Focus on impact. Let the person know about the impact their action (or inaction) had on you. Don’t go into a long story. Focus on sharing your experience, not on making them wrong. Take ownership of your own experience by using I statements. “I felt frustrated,” expresses how you felt without placing blame. Avoid comments like “You made me frustrated.” You may also wish to share a thought that came up for you. “I started to think that you didn’t want to hear my ideas,” works better than “You ignored me and didn’t care about what I had to say.”
5. Express your needs. Make a request. If there is something you want the person to do differently in the future, let them know. Your needs are important.
Example: “I need to know that my ideas are valued. In the future, when I bring up ideas, will you take the time to listen and let me know what you think?”
If we engage with others with positive intent AND take responsibility for our impact, this can strengthen our working relationships. These tips may help us transform a negative impact into greater mutual understanding and stronger working relationship. As with all tips, they may not work in every situation. Always use your best judgment.