Startup HR: The Number One Mistake You Make Communicating at Work

Ever have one of those days where everything you say seems to come across wrong? You start the day with a fight with your partner, you get to work and the compliment you pay the receptionist doesn’t seem to land the way you meant it to, and then your teammate comes to you with a problem and when you try to help you end up pissing them off.

A saying used in management training goes something like: “You know yourself by your intention, I know you by your impact.” It’s deceptively simple but profoundly critical to effective communication. In fact, I think this is probably one of the most important communication tools we have at our disposal if we use with genuine curiosity and openness.

Simply put, it means that you know what you meant to say, no matter what words or tone you actually used, but I only know how it sounded to me and how it made me feel when you said it. There can be a wide gap between intention and impact, much wider than we often realize. We all have our own filters that affect how we see the world—our upbringing, beliefs, biases, preferences, values, and experiences.  These dictate our choice of words, our body language, everything about how we express the thoughts in our heads.

The problem is, everyone else has their own beliefs, biases, and experiences that affect how they hear what we say, and we have no idea what those are or how they may change what we meant. Unless you make a consistent habit of checking your impact with others, you may be creating unintended consequences in the way you communicate.

What does checking for impact look like? It’s equally simple. It really just means two things: state your intention, and ask for the impact. So “Hey, Susan, what I meant to say was that I really like working with you but I’m having a hard time with this particular project. Is that what you heard me say?” Just explicitly state what it was you meant to say, and ask what they heard. You may be amazed at what they’ll say back, especially if it was really clear to you.

This doesn’t mean we go around asking for impact with every single conversation (can you imagine?). But it does mean being aware of the potential need to check for our impact on others. Some of us are better at reading non-verbal cues than others. And especially if you are in a management position, there’s a very good chance that the person you’re talking to won’t tell you if they didn’t like what they heard you say.

Some particularly key times to check for impact and state your intention:

  • in a conflict or disagreement;
  • when the conversation is about a sensitive or emotional subject;
  • when you are delivering bad news;
  • and when the situation is ambiguous or confusing

It also works the other way—if you don’t like what you are hearing from someone else, ask them to clarify what they mean and tell them how what they are saying sounds to you.

Effective communication is the responsibility of both parties in a conversation, not just the person doing the talking, which can be a radical shift in how we see our role as listeners. How are you checking for impact in your conversations, and helping others understand how they come across to you?