Last weekend, one of my worst fears came true. 

Trying to provide “helpful” coaching during a fish-bowl exercise, I stopped someone trying out a new skill during the demonstration by saying, “Wait, wait, wait…” (as I interrupted her) and then added, “you’re using too many words.”  

*Record Scratch* 

Although I knew I was being evaluative (“Too many words?” Seriously? I know better…) I still clumsily offered my feedback, hoping it would serve learning. 

She responded graciously in the moment, and I didn’t think of it again. 

But, later in the day during a break, she approached me and shared, “You know, I felt really triggered and reactive back there when you said I used too many words in front of everyone… A lot of shame came up for me.”   

My heart sank, “Oh no… Tell me more…”  

When someone wants to let you know the impact that something has had on them, lean in and listen.

In the past, I would have reactively explained my good intentions, how I didn’t mean it, and defended what I was trying to do. 

Urgency around my own need to be seen and known for my good intentions would have blocked my ability to listen openly and empathically and to actually learn how I could be more effective in the future.  

I started thinking about all the times I’ve been defensive when people have wanted to share “feedback” with me and all the ways in which we humans often move into defending ourselves instead of learning from one another.  

The relationship between intention and impact is a delicate dance.

When taken together as one movement, they can create a dynamic feedback loop that leads to increased alignment between what we are aiming for and what we are actually able to embody and live into in that moment. When intention and impact speak freely to one another and dance together, incredible learning happens.

Yet, so often we reactively jump to our own defense, spiral down into shame, or turn things around on one another.  

We reactively take a side: either our intentions should matter more or the impact should matter more.

The truth is that both matter.

What made this conversation different?  

1. How she said it.

She didn’t approach me with criticism, accusation, or judgment. She was gentle, kind, and vulnerable instead of indignant, accusatory, or condescending.

How we open up sensitive conversations with one another makes a big difference.

Trusting my intentions, she wanted to talk through how the comment still stung. She helped me see the ways in which it was connected to various experiences in her life, what it meant to her, and also helped me find alternative words and phrases that would have been so much more effective at supporting her growth and learning without stimulating so much stored shame.  

She did all of this without once attacking me or judging me. When we ask others if we can share some feedback, what often follows is a litany of thinly masked evaluations and judgments delivered in a tight, edgy, strained tone of voice.

When this comes my way, I often have to work really hard to translate it all in my head into the underlying essence and the meaning others are trying to convey. But not this time.  

I was so grateful for her open heart and generous spirit. Her example reminded me of the power of grace, tenderness, and dignity when we want to talk about hard things.  

2. How I took it.

Two things have supported my own capacity to take things in:

  • The more self-acceptance I have, the less defensive I can be. I simply expect myself to make mistakes, and I’m at peace with the messiness of learning. 

  • I care about the (unintentional) harm that I cause others when I am acting out of habit or unawareness, and I express my care first.

When I accidentally trip over my dog’s tail and she yelps, I instantly comfort her and tend to her.  
I don’t turn around and say “you shouldn’t be hurt because I didn’t mean to” or “it’s your fault for lying on the floor in the first place.” 

I remain sensitized to and caring about the impact I actually had, not the impact I was trying to have, and then I adjust my approach with an open heart. When my dog yelps, it’s a moment that brings me back to awareness and care. Let’s do that with one another, too.  

The Permission to Be Imperfect

The more I give myself permission to be imperfect, the more effective I can be, and the more I can learn and grow. After years of practice, I’ve learned to stop taking things too personally (and then defensively) and to listen first. I’ve learned to empathize and let new information in before I rush to my own self-focus.  

So, the next time someone shares some feedback about how something landed poorly, care about their pain, hear their story, make space for what it meant to them. Be an active part of the healing process by being present, curious, and caring.

Hold back on defending what you meant or what your intentions were. Instead, thank them for bringing it up and ask them to tell you more.

In summary:

• Be gentle with yourself and others. 

• Assume positive intent.

• Focus on what can be learned. 

• Keep your attention off the goodness or badness, the rightness and wrongness of any action.

• Focus your attention on what it meant to others, how it impacted them, and what would have worked better instead.

What prevents you from opening your heart to others when they share how something impacted them? Where do you struggle with the balance between intention and impact?

I’d love to know! Leave a comment below.