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Impact vs. Intent: Which is more important?


In the public sphere, much is being said about impact vs. intent. “If the impact of what you said or did makes me uncomfortable or offended or stressed, then you are at fault and your intent is irrelevant.” Impact is being touted as the only thing that matters.

But there is little logic in many of these affirmations; only scolding. Ironically, the same journalists who condemned Joe Biden for the discomfort he caused with his overly affectionate behavior also took umbrage with a mother who expressed her discomfort with young women wearing revealing leggings in church. The scolds blamed Joe Biden for his impact (his intent was immaterial), and then they reversed themselves and blamed the mother for not understanding the intent (and the impact she felt was trivialized). There’s no internal logic; the only consistency is the scolding. It reminds me of the game called Whack-a-Mole, where the objective is simply to squash another, over and over again.

I believe that in most cases, intent and impact matter in equal measure. A few weeks ago, I texted and then called one of my daughters with a suggestion that I hoped would relieve some stress from her daily overload (medical school, planning a wedding, and an upcoming trip). The impact was the opposite of my intent. She gently told me that I was adding to her stress because I was one more person she needed to respond to. We quickly cleared the air, laughed about the difference between my intent and how she received it, and we parted with a better understanding of each other. When I learned the negative impact of my actions—in a dialogue that was mutually respectful—I was open to hearing what I could do that would actually be helpful (which was my intent).

The crux of the matter isn’t who is right and who is wrong; it is whether or not the parties involved see and respond to the dignity of the other. Every experience is an opportunity to grow and learn; it is our choice whether or not to take it.

Communication is about the give and take between two or more beings who have different perspectives and frames of reference. We bump up against differences and misinterpretations many times a day. To function effectively, we need to engage with each other, with curiosity and humility, to try to find new solutions that take differing views and reactions into account. It means that we clarify, seek understanding, and hopefully find some common ground.

Contact us to learn more about the communication skills we teach for leadership and effective collaboration.


Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



Cultural Appropriation or Joyful Living?

Easter sunrise.jpg

I shared the Easter sunrise with my mother on Sunday. She died in 2011, but she was present when I went down to the lake. I was overcome by emotion—not because of her presence, which was sweet and quiet, but by the simple beauty of a sunrise over Lake Michigan. It never fails to move me.

My mother introduced me to the spirituality of an Easter sunrise—particularly from a shoreline—when I was about ten. Our family had recently moved to Italy for my father’s international work. During spring vacation our family drove to Sorrento and camped in a tent. My mother woke me early and the two of us crawled out of our tent, leaving my dad and brother still snoring in their sleeping bags.

We found some rocks to sit on and quietly watched the world awaken as the sun rose. Sorrento does not face east, but it didn’t matter. The moment was magical to us both. Part of the magic for me was that my mother had shared something that was very meaningful to her without saying anything. I understood what it meant to her because I could see and feel her quiet joy.

My mother was raised Muslim in Iran. She neither embraced nor renounced Islam, nor did she convert to Christianity. She simply incorporated joyful traditions and spirituality from multiple faiths. Easter and Christmas were as important to her as Norooz (an Iranian holiday from ancient times, and not a Muslim one). What some people today would call cultural appropriation, to her was joyful living.

She was multicultural in a way that I have never seen in anyone else. She moved easily between cultures, adapting to the circumstances. She lived in multiple countries on several continents at a time when few did so, and she was drawn to all that was joyful.

My mother was raised in northwest Iran, and her first language was Turkish. Her parents—both Iranian—were well-educated in the 1920s and they worked with American Presbyterian missionaries in the region, helping to build and develop hospitals, schools, and experimental farms. My mother’s playmates in her early years were both Iranian and American.

Later, her family moved to another region of Iran and my mother learned Persian for the first time, around age eight. At first, she felt like a foreigner in her own land because she did not understand anything at her new school. But she adapted, and in high school she also learned English and French.

She earned a degree in education from the University of Tehran in the 1940s, worked for a couple of years as a teacher in Tehran, and in 1949 obtained a scholarship to attend a Teachers’ College in Missouri. Then she got another scholarship for a Master’s degree at the University of Nebraska, where she met my father, a Canadian who had grown up in a tiny Icelandic village along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Their life together moved them from Lincoln, NE (where they met as foreign students) to Saskatoon, SK to Ottawa, ON to Madison, WI to Winnipeg, MB to Tehran, Iran and eventually to Rome, Italy, where I spent my formative years.

I do the work that I do—helping people foster more meaningful and effective interactions across differences—in the singular way that I do it because of what I learned from observing my mother. I learned not from what she said, but how she lived. She experienced the same childlike joy from roasting marshmallows over an open fire in Canada as she did from buying roasted chestnuts from street vendors in Italy, or roasted corn-on-the-cob in Iran. I am anchored by the way she experienced and shared simple joy, regardless of the setting.

I am uncomfortable with identity politics not because there is anything inherently wrong with it, but because it is insufficient to foster meaningful connections and understanding. It is a necessary first step, but more steps must follow. There is value in recognizing themes that run through the experiences of all women, or all African-Americans, or all coal-miners. But we also need to move beyond group identities to explore individual experiences if we want to connect and collaborate.

I have never fit into a category, nor have either of my parents. The only response I can give to questions like: “Where are you from?” or “Where are your parents from?” is: “Well, it’s complicated…”

I have observed over my lifetime how many people want to put me and my history into their frame of reference, without inquiring about my frame. It is natural to do so. We all take in new information and put it into contexts that are familiar to us. This is not where we err; our failing is in not recognizing that another step is required: namely, inquiry and exploration. “Tell me more about what your experiences mean to you.”

To connect and collaborate well, we must develop the habit and skill of pausing, reflecting on our interpretations, and inquiring more. We must constantly empty ourselves of our preconceived ideas and open ourselves to what we can learn from others. In the words of Mark Nepo:

“Deep listening is so obvious to begin and so elusive to maintain… It is to keep emptying and opening.

To listen is to give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear, or what that will mean.

To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”


Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



The Quest for Purity

Many journalists have written about outrage being the emotion du jour – or as Hugh Hewitt puts it, our current addiction. A few months ago, he wrote:

“…like the human pulse, it is nowadays a sign of life. Not to be outraged is to be almost disqualified in the eyes of many from being a participant in politics, even though the perpetually outraged fall across the political spectrum. Not only can they not imagine anyone not being outraged, they also can’t imagine any kind of outrage save their own.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to be outraged. But being in a constant state of elevated anger, from one issue to the next, is ultimately self-defeating. It drives us into binary thinking not only about issues, but about people. (You are with us or against us.) And once in that space, we lose our capacity to distinguish nuance, texture, and difference; we shrink the gray zone, which is where we need to be operating; and most importantly, we squander the opportunity to gather new insights, expand our understanding, and build a viable, inclusive path forward.

Outrage can be valuable, when used judiciously. But when it is always turned on, it seems to bring forth a disquieting quest for purity. There is a growing intolerance of anyone whose thoughts, actions, and statements do not meet our criteria, as evaluated through our own lens. We don’t make room for the possibility that we may have misinterpreted someone, or not fully understood the multi-layered and complex context from which that person was speaking.

On a recent radio program, the left-leaning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described an experience of being misinterpreted by those within her own political tribe, and being taken down publicly. She said: “The Left eat their own…” and then commented further on the intolerance of perceived variances in thinking.

Two weeks later, on a different radio program titled “Words You Can’t Say,” I heard the same statement made on the Right, by Dodie Horton, a Republican state senator. She said: “I was amazed to find that Republicans eat their own.”

In both cases, it had to do with language and a misinterpretation of a particular choice of words. In both cases, these people were hounded and intimidated for an interpretation that was imposed on them.

There is a disturbing blindness to this quest for purity. When we insist on processing what we hear through our own frame of reference, without considering and exploring the frame of the other, we miss complexity, nuance, and possibilities for creative solutions. In our well-meaning desire to elevate and improve our society, we inadvertently kill off that which will help it grow.

So, the next time someone says something that offends you, or that you find discordant in some way, ask an open-ended question before making a statement. It is harder to do than you think, because we are so used to responding with a statement (and often, a judgment).

Until and unless we develop the skill to explore someone else’s context in all its layers of complexity, we will miss one opportunity after another to broaden our understanding of the world we live in, and to expand our capacity to effect positive change for all.


Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.