Say What You Mean

Be sure that intent and impact match in conversations to build a culture of trust.

Topics: School Culture and Climate, School Management

Brianne, a fifth grade teacher, stops you to share an interaction she had the day before, in which a teammate, Megan, ignored her during their lunch together. Based on previous interpersonal issues, Brianne is sure Megan is ignoring her on purpose. She “just wants you to know” but doesn’t want you to talk with Megan.

Minutes later, your phone chimes with an email from Mrs. Taylor, a parent with whom you have spoken on several occasions. She’s angry because her son came home after school and said that Mr. Peterson yelled at him and his friends for no reason at the crosswalk on the way home.

Every administrator has had days that start like this one, and the toll these situations can take is significant. It can often feel as if you spend most of your time managing adult behavior rather than providing instructional leadership. How can you take this opportunity to build the kind of culture you want for students, staff, and the community?

Intent vs. Impact

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior,” Stephen Covey once wrote, contrasting intent and impact. We can all remember times in our lives when people said or did something that made us feel angry or offended, and there are likely occasions when you’ve done the same. These differences lie at the core of the dichotomy.

In the case of intent, an individual usually knows what they mean or meant to convey. To the person receiving the information, however, only the impact or behavior is visible.

Impact might be influenced by factors such as the state of the relationship, one’s values, or how much sleep someone got the night before. Where this state of act and react gets complicated is that we can’t see the intentions of others and need to intuit what the intent might be based on how it made us feel. Such differences can cause strife.

Breaking the Cycle

As complicated as human interaction can be, individuals have the ability to influence and shape the outcomes of their words and behaviors by aligning intent with impact. The following are strategies:

  • Slow down. Before you have a conversation with a staff member, parent, or student, consider any barriers that might be present. Is either of you bringing any history to the conversation? You’ll want to listen and validate any feelings they might bring forward. The ability to listen, validate, and empathize can build trust in the moment and help the person with whom you are talking realize you are listening on a deep level and want to understand.
  • Strive for clarity. The most important things are what we mean and how it comes across. Be aware of what you want to communicate when talking with someone. What do you want the other person to hear and understand? If you know what your impact might be, it can be easier to ensure that your behavior matches the desired outcome.
  • Declare your intent upfront. Informing the other party of your intent can make a conversation go more smoothly. It’s as easy as saying, “I want to be clear about the purpose of this conversation.” It can be equally important to let someone know what the intent is not: “I’m not here to get angry or fire you; I’m here to have a conversation so that we can avoid this situation in the future.”
  • Seek clarifications. To get an idea of your words’ impact, you can ask questions such as, “What are you hearing me say?” or “How does this make you feel?” Questions such as these can help you understand your impact before the conversation ends and provide you with an opportunity to change the outcome if it doesn’t match your intent or assure the person that you are committed to working through the issue together.

Reinforcing Communication

Knowing how and when to incorporate the above strategies can be complicated. Reinforce ideas of listening, checking for understanding, and other methods by providing a hypothetical scenario with a parent or teammate in which things worked out to allow staff to hear the positives of similar interactions. This can provide clarity about how things can be handled, and it supports a culture in which staff and students feel empowered to handle issues themselves.

If you, your staff, and your community apply these tools, the start of your day might look a little less complicated. Brianne stops to tell you, “I just wanted to let you know about a conversation Megan and I had yesterday. During lunch, I thought she was ignoring me. I took the opportunity to approach her and ask her if she was OK. She said she had received a call that her father had been admitted to a hospital for observation. We had a great talk about how she was feeling. You might want to check on Megan—I think she could use some support.”

A few minutes later, your phone chimes with an email from Mrs. Taylor. She asks if Mr. Peterson can give her a call so that they can set up a time to talk about the conversation he had with her son after school.

When we get better about matching intent to impact, it builds trust and respect among staff, students, and parents. It also gives people the tools and confidence they need to have critical conversations before relationships fall into disrepair. 

Clint Allison is executive director of student achievement with the Fountain-Fort Carson School District in Fountain, Colorado.

Joe Fabey is assistant director of student achievement with the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.