BIG IDEA: Impact Is More Important Than Intent

Impact and intent are concepts often discussed in the context of interpersonal dynamics and conflict resolution. On this page, we’ll learn how intent and impact are related to other important racial justice concepts like identity and privilege.

But before we dive in, let’s define some terms:

In any relationship, one person will inevitably hurt the other person by their words, actions, or inaction. We’ll call the person who does the hurting the offender, and the person who was hurt the offended.

Sometimes the offender is oblivious to the hurt they’ve caused or the degree of hurt that was experienced by the offended. So the offended might confront the offender and share how they have been hurt.

From there, the conversation can move forward in different ways. Often the discussion will include the topics of intent (did the offender mean to hurt the offended) and impact (what was the actual outcome of the offender’s words or actions).

When we are the offender: It can be hard to hear that we have hurt someone, especially if we have done so unintentionally! When confronted, we often react in one of two ways (or maybe both):

1) Make sure the offended knows we didn’t mean to hurt them
2) Attempt to minimize or dismiss the offended’s pain

Both of these responses are about trying to reduce our own pain or discomfort as the offender. But the more loving, empathetic, mature response is to be more concerned with understanding and reducing the offended’s pain or discomfort.

For true healing to occur, the offender is going to have to own and apologize for the impact of their words or actions, regardless of their intent.

We white people say and do things that negatively impact people of color all the time. If you are fortunate enough to have a person of color give you feedback about the negative impact of your speech or actions, the resources below will help you know how to receive that feedback, then use it for healing and change, instead of causing further damage.

One final note: impact over intent is an important concept to understand and apply both in interpersonal interactions, as well as within larger social and institutional structures.

ARTICLE: Intent vs. Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter by Jamie Utt

FEATURED VIDEO: Intent and Impact

Note: This 3-minute video from Deaf Youth USA shares some practical do’s and don’ts for responding to marginalized people when they share feedback with those of us who are privileged. If you, like me, are not fluent in American Sign Language, it might help to turn on the subtitles/closed captioning for this video! Click on the Settings button on the bottom right corner of the video to find this option.

VIDEO PLAYLIST: Impact Over Intent