Impact and Intention: The Power of Increased Awareness

Boys whispering and laughingSuch a simple, yet profound idea. The confusion between intention and impact has resulted in wars, lawsuits, revenge, betrayal, unjust punishment, misunderstanding, lost relationships, and major amounts of unnecessary suffering. Intention is what you wanted to convey. Impact is what was received and understood. These two are often NOT the same!

Intention/impact: fear of speaking
I am teaching English as a second language in a small grade 1-12 school in Indonesia. Especially when the students are practicing speaking English, most of them feel reticent to speak. They are afraid of being wrong or of being laughed at. When they can’t think of what to say or mispronounce a word, the others often laugh. This is an anxiety-releasing laugh, but the impact on the student who is stuck is their worst fear coming true. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was just teasing.” “No, you weren’t. You knew how much it would hurt.” “No, really, I didn’t mean it.” “Yes, you did. You think I’m stupid. I know it.” “No, I don’t think you’re stupid.” “Then why were you laughing at me.” And so it goes.

In Indonesia this dialogue doesn’t happen out loud. In fact, the other students stop laughing and the student who didn’t speak or made a mistake withdraws and shuts down. “When I’m shy and someone laughs at me, I don’t want to say anything more,” said Monica. And so, the students continue to laugh at mistakes. “Sometimes I laugh because I’m just glad it’s not me,” said Bagus. And those who are laughed at get more and more fearful and convinced that they ARE, by nature, not good enough, foolish, or wrong.

This is a classroom example, but many an international incident has escalated from a smaller event based on cultural contexts or unforgiven or misunderstood past history. The simplest, most direct way out of this downward spiraling cycle is to acknowledge that the impact was different than the intention. Both the intention and the experience of the intention are true. The laughter was not intended to be mean. Yet the student’s real experience was of pain. Arguing over who is right won’t help. It will just escalate the situation. “Oh, you took my laughter in a different way than I intended. What did you take it to mean?” will go a long way toward reconnecting and clearing up the misunderstanding. The sixth graders didn’t ask this question, but they did agree to try not to laugh at each other’s shyness anymore.

Intention/impact: unintentional damage
The classroom was unnaturally quiet when I walked in. When I pulled my chair out, the desk cabinet door fell off. “I can fix it, I can fix it!!!” Gabriel came running over to try to fix it. “Fixing this requires more tools than your fingers. What happened?” “He did it. No, he did it. No, Ibu, not me.” “Okay, how did this break?” “We were playing ball and Gabriel broke it.” “Is that right, Gabriel?” Hanging his head in shame, “Yes.” “Did you mean to break it?” “No!!!” “So it was an accident?” Intention: play. Impact: broken door. Escalating fault-finding argument. I talked with the class about what to do. “Gabriel, you have an opportunity to use your power well by taking responsibility for breaking the door even though you didn’t mean to break it. Are you willing to meet this challenge? ” He talks to the principal about it and wins the respect of the other students. Not only acknowledging, but taking responsibility for the difference between intention and impact was a challenge. I hope it will be a lesson that will help them resolve future situations.

Intention/impact: managing behavior
In these Indonesian classrooms (grades 6 and 7), the students have the perhaps universal range of preteen behaviors. I was finding it difficult to maintain an effective learning environment. “You remember that power is the ability to have an effect or to have influence. Well, there are two ways to misuse power. Over-use of your power and under-use. Here’s how it looks on a chart.”

over-use of power ____________________ under-use of power

being loud                                                                being quiet
teasing                                                                      smiling
talking a lot                                                              talking a little
moving a lot                                                             sitting still
being silly                                                                 being serious

“You all do at least some of these things, right? Now is there anything wrong with any of them? No, right? But let’s talk about what happens in our classroom when there is too much over or under use.”

“What happens when there is too much of the following in the classroom?” (my summaries) It becomes
loud (too many talking at once so that we can’t hear each other)
energetic (distracting, out of control, chaotic)
characterized by playful teasing (with people becoming misunderstanding, hurt)
“And what happens when there’s too much of this?” The classroom is
quiet (no one can hear; boring)
self-contained (stiff, stifled)
characterized by playful smiling or too much seriousness (we don’t get to have fun)

“So now, come up to the board and place yourself on this line where you think your actions put you. How far toward over-use of power or how far toward under-use of power? Where would you put me, the teacher?”

Then I talked about how one of the responsibilities of teachers is to make sure that the classroom is a good place for everyone to learn. I playfully role-played how I as the teacher can do this either by over-using my power or under-using it. “So, the best way I can think of is to work together so that we all can learn the best we can. Let’s try an experiment of noticing what our effect is on other students. I’ll ring the bell every once in a while, and then let’s see what’s happening in the classroom. Let’s see how well we can manage our behavior to be in the healthy, happy classroom range, not at the extremes. I bet we can all get better and better at it. Shall we try out this big challenge?”

These children understood remarkably well, were completely “spot on” in their self-assessments about their behavior, and all were accurate about how they assessed me as a teacher on the continuum. I was impressed. And they were quite excited about the “challenge” to help create a better learning atmosphere. When I would check over time, they were doing quite well at managing their own behavior. Twelve and thirteen is a good age to practice self-management. It is also a good time for the individual responsibility for self-management to shift from teacher to student. We began to refer to the healthy classroom atmosphere as “being in the zone” (not too quiet or too loud).

Intention/impact: reasonable consequences
In 7-grade social studies we were talking about global alliances, treaties, agreements, the United Nations, ASEAN, etc. The students practiced making agreements with each other, noting that an agreement needs to have a consequence for failure to keep it. We talked about how some consequences are unfair, as in a local situation where a woman stole several pineapples and was given a punishment of 4 years in prison.

To practice thinking of a fair consequence, we set up a role-play based on the very successful Restorative Justice model. The intention of the process was to find a resolution that would help the offender learn another way of doing things. (The intention of severe punishment is to teach a lesson, but when it is unfair, it often has the opposite effect, as we know from the high recidivism rates in American prisons.) In the Restorative Justice process, the offender and the person(s) the offender has harmed meet together. The offender learns how he or she has negatively affected the victim(s). The offender takes responsibility for harm caused and then the two parties figure out what would be a fair recompense. The classroom role-play was powerful and clear. One right use of power is to make a fair and appropriate consequence for causing harm—a consequence that will have the intended impact.

Intention/impact: expectations
The parents of these Indonesian students, like all parents, want their children to get good grades and good jobs, make their family proud, and be happy. These are universal intentions. But some of their well-intended strategies to support their children don’t have a helpful impact. In discussing how intentions and impacts don’t always match, the students named a few things that don’t help: “anger, forcing, teasing me when I am already doing my best, vacation trips, and not being impressed when I thought I was doing my best.” Actions in which intention and impact did match included “support, tell me things like never give up, pray for me, give inspiration, tell stories about when they were kids” (and, in school, praise). When we ask about our impact, we can change or refine our actions so that they are more likely to get the response we want.

Intention/impact: the bright side (who knew?)
In the one-day Right Use of Power in-service training for the teachers of the small school in Indonesia that I am teaching in, I asked the teachers (a mix of native Indonesians and two or three volunteers from Western countries) to remember a teacher who had had a big positive impact on their lives. Here are several of their stories: “I was shy and awkward. One of my teachers noticed that I played the guitar and got me into a little band. That was so good for me.” “I had won a math competition, but one of my teachers pointed out what a good writer I was. I realized that’s what I really love! Now I’m a teacher. It makes sense to ME.” “I was really in trouble in school. Trouble was the way I got attention. I was near failing. My 6th-grade teacher made me stay after school as a punishment but noticed that I couldn’t read. I was in 5th grade. He gave me lessons and I knew he liked me and I soon was making 8s and 9s.” “I wasn’t good at English, my second language. I didn’t like it. But I had a teacher who made learning English fun with games and engaging activities. I now love languages.”

These are stories of the bright side—stories of interactions with a teacher who saw or said something that changed and nourished lives. So often we never know what remarkable and positive impact an action of ours had. That’s why those in up-power positions—teachers, say—are 150% responsible for what they do and say in class. Why? Because sometimes it may have a stronger, more positive (or negative) impact than we had intended or expected. Who knew? Right uses of power can change lives. Take a minute to imagine the positive impact you may unknowingly have had on someone. Right uses of power too often go unnoticed by us, although fortunately not by the individuals positively impacted.

Related articles:
Shy, Cousin of Shame
Kids LEARN How to Communicate
Nonverbal Communication – “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeff Cheek

    Jeff Cheek

    July 31st, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    This hits home with me as I am going through cultural training. All those small interactions that we take for granted in one culture can wind up costing us so many jobs and even contracts.

    A good example for me was when two of our executives showed up to sign an agreement with a turkish firm driving a small car from the airport. We are a conservative company and the board members had no reason to show up in full regalia to effectively purchase a much smaller firm. The firms owner turned our board members around and refused to allow them access into the facilty.

    Why because they didn’t show proper etiquette and while our society prides itself on frugality the turkish society doesn’t….

  • ryan


    July 31st, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    its just so important that not only do we give the right message but the right message in the right manner so that the ones we are giving the message to are actually benefited and are not affected negatively instead.This is true for any position of power,be it a teacher or a parent.Whats so important is that these impacts that we make on kids can have a long term consequence in their lives and could well go on to define them in the future.Knowing all this is a great way to make yourself stop for a minute and think just how you are delivering your message to the child next time. I always practice this and tell this to my friends that have kids.

  • North Pole

    North Pole

    August 1st, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    Many times I have said things that I didn’t think were anything more than casual tongue-in-cheek but they ended up hurting the other person.Maybe thats a habit I have but hey I have no way of knowing youre going to take little things so seriously!So if something does hurt you,talk to me about it rather than assuming Im a bad person and talking behind my back!

  • Cedar Barstow

    Cedar Barstow

    October 16th, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Such wisdom in your comments. Jeff–for your increased sensitivity to cross-cultural differences, Ryan for being clear that it is not just what you say but how you say it that makes all the difference in having a positive impact on others; and North Pole for the reminder to us all that when we feel hurt, let the other know so that you can use the interchange to clarify and hopefully even deepen the relationship. Thanks again for reading my article. Cedar

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