Words are powerful. Words have the ability to encourage and belittle, to motivate and berate, to build and destroy, and yet we sling them around without much thought. Many justify the slinging of words around by saying that regardless of how it landed (the impact) the intention was pure and good and therefore it is excusable.

Spoiler: It’s not.

Why intent is not good enough.

This type of thinking is so, so harmful.

Even if you ALWAYS communicated with the best of intentions, the impact of your words can still land on the wrong side of the line. And even if you always assume that the person communicating with you is communicating with their best intentions, their words can still hurt. We’ve all been there. So why, when we’re approached by someone calling us out for our words, are we so defensive of what we said?

Intent is only half of the picture.

When you are communicating with someone else, the intent is what you feel your words mean and the impact is what they feel your words mean. This can result in there being a huge discrepancy between your intent and the impact they feel.

To illustrate this, I have three stories I’d like to share with all of you.

Imposter Syndrome: I’m not good enough.

I struggled to get a job out of college. It was a long, grueling process. Rejection after rejection after rejection. Watching my friends and my fellow CS graduates land jobs left and right, I was convinced that I was a failure because no one would hire me — even for basic web administration or data entry.

I thought I wasn’t good enough. I believed I wasn’t good enough.

When I finally landed a job after months of searching, I was understandably ecstatic. I met my team, got to know the ecosystem, and was learning as fast as I possibly could. I was determined to prove my worth and my abilities. My enthusiasm was noticed and felt by the entire team. And they were not happy about it.

I thought I was wrong for wanting to learn more. I thought my desire to better myself was a defect, not an asset. These feelings had a deep hold on me, and fueled my imposter syndrome for years. Desiring to learn and grow and be your best self are all assets. I, and likely others in senior or leadership positions, will continue to yell this for those in the back:

We can all suffer from imposter syndrome. We can all struggle with doubt. We can all think someone is going to out us for being fakes. You are not alone.

There was one specific encounter that made me aware of their dislike of me. One of my coworkers had encountered an issue with the shared setup we used to run our local development servers. At the end of a team all-hands meeting, our boss asked them if they had figured out the issue yet as we were all getting up to leave. They had, apparently, asked every other person on the team for help on this ongoing issue and collectively, they still hasn’t resolved it. This being the first time I had heard about the issue, I asked a few questions since it sounded very similar to an issue I troubleshot weeks earlier and fixed. I inquired if the issue was presenting in the way I had encountered and mentioned that I might have a solution if so.

Well, that solution worked. And one of my other coworkers quipped loudly, “Ha! The junior engineer showed up two senior engineers!”

The impact here was confusing. I felt like I had somehow disrespected my coworkers, that I shouldn’t have mentioned that I had a solution, that my input wasn’t appreciated. For a long time after that, I had difficulty bringing up alternative options, questioning when something seemed wrong, and otherwise being confident in my experiences and asserting them when it was necessary. I later found out that the person’s intention in that statement was that I was smart and resourceful; and that they were impressed that I had been able to figure it out. Good intent, that had a lingering negative impact on me.

Women in Tech: Fighting an Uphill Battle

A frequent message sent toward women is that we are not wanted in certain fields. The messages we hear range from we can’t do it or that we’re not good at it to blantantly told we are not welcome. Or there is general surprise that we are in STEM fields. Or disbelief that we are capable of being experts in our field(s).

These phrases come with implicit negative intent. There is inherent gender bias that women could not possibly be experts in STEM fields and so when presented with that information, their first thought is to question.

It detracts from our skills. It undermines our expertise. And it can deter us and keep us from entering the field, or can push us out if we’re already here. For a lot of people, this is exactly their experience, and that’s terrible.

Women leaving or never joining STEM fields is a negative impact to the original intent. Some people ask these types of questions in ignorance, a seemingly innocent inquiry that has a substantial negative impact on the field and those women. This is neutral intent with negative impact. Some ask these questions or make snide remarks purposefully, because they truly believe women don’t belong. This is negative intent with negative impact.

Despite all of the implicit biases against women in tech, other STEM fields, and even politics, we’ve rallied and made it known that we belong here. The #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement empowers women to become engineers because it is tangible proof that other women are in STEM fields, and there are so many outreach movements to bring more girls and women into STEM fields. This is a positive impact to a negative or neutral intent.

LGTBQ+ Discovery: I’m Queer.

After my now husband and I had been dating for over two years, we broached the topic of living together. We were met with resistance by some family and friends, mostly on religious grounds: abstinence before marriage. I understood, but I also viscerally felt that it was truly not a problem.

Arguing my case, one person’s retort felt particularly harsh: “If the temptation [to have sex] isn’t there, then the love isn’t real.”

That hurt. A lot. At the time, I had no idea how to explain what I felt or why I felt the way I did, but I was emotional and hurt.

I understood where they were coming from: in the traditional sense, sexual temptation is a common indicator of a healthy relationship. What we didn’t know at that time was that sexual temptation was not and would never be a problem for me, or a useful indicator of love.

Why? Because I’m asexual (Ace).

For me, being ace means I have no desire for sex; I do not feel arousal and I do not feel sexual attraction to another person. However, I do have deep and intimate feelings and connections to another person. And those feelings and connections are absolutely indicators of real love and real affection that healthy relationships can be built on.

Despite believing that my relationship is genuine, I had this sliver of doubt for many years after. That what I felt wasn’t real because I didn’t want sex. That my partner would leave me(*) or was unhappy with me because I didn’t want sex. Sex was this constant struggle. Sex was a hurdle that I felt I needed to overcome in order to have a healthy relationship.

It’s been years since that conversation. My husband and I have been happily married for over 5 years now; and after all this time, that temptation has never been there for me. Yet our relationship is healthy, and we regularly receive comments on how genuine our relationship seems to people.

This discovery is recent, sometime in the last year or so. I’ve come to understand why I felt that way and why that statement hurt so much, and I am able to articulate the hurt I felt.

I’m an open book when it comes to my sexual orientation and romantic inclinations. Please, please ask me about it if you’re curious. It’s worth noting that the asexual community has varying experiences. I personally don’t feel arousal, while other asexuals may. You can read more about the ace community at asexuality.org.

(*) It is only fair to note that had there been other issues in our relationship (making it unhealthy), not wanting sex and the struggle could have caused us to split. Our relationship is incredibly healthy and so this blip is something we are able to work through together.

Best intentions, phrased for the best impact.

The good news is that you, as the communicator, can change your words and phrasing to help ensure the impact is positively felt.

By working on the language you use to get your point across, you’ll start to see a change on how people behave around you. Start listening to what you’re saying and look for the unconscious biases in your assumptions. If people are offended or cut a conversation short, stop and think about what you said that may have resulted in that offense. It may not be your fault but I’d wager there was something you said that garnered that behavior.

As the receiver, you can change your perspective to always assume that the person is speaking with good intentions (even if they are not) and do your best to give the other person the space to learn why the impact was negative. Gently inform them that what they said was hurful, seek to understand their intent, and work with them to teach how to better phrase their words in the future.