Leadership Spotlight

Intent vs. Impact: Communicating Effectively

A man and woman talk in a casual business setting.


Have you ever noticed that when you accidentally cut off another driver in traffic, it is an honest mistake, but when the same thing happens to you, the other motorist is inconsiderate and plagued by deep character flaws? This illustrates a tendency known as the fundamental attribution error, a process through which we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.1

Blind spots are not limited to traffic; they occur in communication as well. Do you ever wonder why you clearly communicate something to others, yet they seem indifferent to the information? For example, you ask a colleague for assistance on a project. Or, you tell your children to take out the trash or clean their rooms. After a day or two, you notice no progress on these requests despite communicating clearly in both cases. You know exactly how your colleague and your children should have responded, yet they fell short of this expectation. Perhaps this is not the first time.

As time passes and your frustration grows, you assess the scenario. Is your colleague lazy? Why did you not notice this before? What about your children? Are they addicted to video games? Drugs? How do you make sense of the chaos now creeping into your life? Maybe, you think, it is you. Perhaps you do not have as much influence as you would like. Take a deep breath.

Often, we think we delivered a clear message when we did not. Most of the time, we failed to weigh the intent versus the impact of our communication. We did not consider if the intended message would impact the receiver as expected.

So many barriers to communication exist. Some we see physically, while others occur only in our mind, as well as the recipient’s. These blind spots, like those in our cars, can lead to consequences. Our rushes to judgment often become compounded by deadlines, personality quirks, and the unknowns we face while trying to make sense of a complex world.

The key to delivering the right message in the right way at the right time is simple—slow down your interactions. Think before speaking. Consider the barriers to successful communication. Use empathy: Does the receiver have the same lenses for the world that I do? Ask yourself how you can communicate your message better, considering the recipient’s viewpoints.

Look for nonverbal and verbal cues that indicate understanding. Allow the receiver to give you feedback, then circle back to ensure that the message has had the intended impact. Do not hesitate to ask recipients to summarize their perception of your discussion to make sure you are in agreement. This signals to the other person that you are invested in their understanding and seek a cooperative relationship.

Regarding the two earlier scenarios, the next time you find yourself questioning someone’s reaction to information you shared, make an honest self-assessment of your communication. By doing so, you may realize that you did not convey a deadline or the urgency for the project completion. Recognize the possibility that you assumed the receiver knew you needed the task completed by a deadline existing only in your mind.

The recipients in both cases thought there was no hurry. Laziness or defiance was not a factor. These situations entailed miscommunications partly because you threw caution to the wind and failed to consider the intent versus impact of your message. Communicate with care, and watch those blind spots!

Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, and Chief Jeffrey Katz of the Boynton Beach, Florida, Police Department prepared this Leadership Spotlight. Ms. Coleman can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov and Chief Katz at katzj@bbfl.us.


1 Dan Heath, “The Fundamental Attribution Error: It’s the Situation, Not the Person,” Fast Company, June 9, 2010, https://www.fastcompany.com/1657515/fundamental-attribution-error-its-situation-not-person.