“But that’s not what I meant!”
How many of us have either heard or said this phrase? There’s a good chance you have already said it today. This statement both comes from and produces more conflict in our lives. And it is largely because there is not a proper understanding of two simple words that I think help mitigate and manage conflict in our lives.
Those words are intention and impact.
I have found these two words to be helpful in my own life and in helping others navigate the waters of conflict in their homes, schools, places of work, and even in church. I know it’s shocking to learn that Christians have conflict too.
Let me share an example between a parent and a teenager.
Imagine a father asks a series of questions of his teenage daughter about her plans for the weekend. And let’s say that his intention is to know her plans in order to coordinate details with other members of the family. However, the multiple questions that come one after the other may produce an impact that causes his daughter to feel as though she is being interrogated. Her defenses are up because she feels she is guilty even before the weekend has started. At this point the conflict is conceived and things spiral down from there.
This is a common episode that could take place between a parent and child, a boyfriend and girlfriend, or even an employer and an employee. So what can be done in these moments?
When counseling someone through a time of conflict, I am looking for ways that intention and impact are at play. I usually ask some general questions to gain more information. But at some point I end up asking each person what they felt from the other person. Essentially, I ask what was the impact of the other person’s words, behavior, or attitude. Then I ask if they believe that the other person intended to make them feel this way.
What follows is not always an easy conversation, but it is an opportunity for each person to attempt to understand one another.
Now, I should make this very clear. In order for that to happen there has to be a mutual understanding that the one thing that can’t be argued against is the impact. Sure, we can talk about why that impact was not intended by the other person, but we can’t deny or debate the impact itself. What can be argued and discussed is the intention.
Having clear categories in our minds of intention and impact helps each person see the conflict from the perspective of the other. Even if it is for a brief moment. Really, this is a simple exercise in trying to create empathy, which is imperative in resolving conflict.
Proverbs 18:2 says A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
When we see the impact our words or actions have on someone else and we simply reply by saying “but that’s not what I meant” we are acting the fool that is described in this proverb. If we only care about how we see things and never view the world from the perspective of those we are in conflict with, then we will be doomed to play the fool.
Now I realize this doesn’t mean all conflict will cease in our lives by simply using these two words. But it can help provide a vocabulary for dealing with conflict. Just like learning a new language, the more you improve your vocabulary, the more you understand the language. In the same way, the more you understand the dynamics of intention and impact, the more you will be able to identify it in the moment and perhaps avoid jumping to conclusions that only fan the flame of the conflict.
Are there other categories or concepts you have used in helping resolve conflict?