intentions vs. impact

A few months ago I attended an opportunity to learn more about others. As with any training, there were various levels of comfort regarding the diversity training. A treasured colleague of mine made a comment to me that has lingered in my mind. “As a Black female I’m sick of others telling me of their good intentions…bottom line, they need to listen to me if they really want to know what the impact is on me. They don’t understand that their intentions have a daily impact.”

I need to thank my friend who expressed her feelings to me regarding intentions vs. impact. Her comment about our training has been most impactful on me, although not her intention. She has made me think daily about various things.

Knowing her comment applied to both ends of the spectrum of those attending roused my curiosity into how people make decisions. Do we truly consider all real and perceived impacts of our intentions? Have we developed a sense of the pain our “good intentions” may cause? We all develop constructs in our mind of what something is or isn’t. That is necessary to have better understanding of everything we experience. But are our experiences broad enough to make decisions that do not harm others personally or emotionally? Are there critical questions we should ask ourselves, especially when making the most difficult decisions?

Do we truly hurt others unknowingly in ways that have a lasting impact? When our lives are overwhelming do we cling to that which we know more tightly? Why don’t we ask this question more authentically on a regular basis? 

Think of the various responses to the non-violent raising a closed fist on the Olympic winners’ stand several years ago, returning Vietnam Veterans in the early-mid 1070’s, “taking a knee” protest or the reactions to recent Supreme Court decisions. On a much smaller scale, how we react to family and friends? Do we really consider what it is like to walk in another’s world or consider what road of experiences they have traveled to come to their reactions?

How often have we tried to do something nice, just, or with “good intentions” only to find the impact was far from our expectations? Even hurtful to others. Our decisions can have long term consequences for both ourselves and others. If you have ever been a parent, good friend, leader of an organization or elected to a position, this has happened more than you care to admit. How often have you said, “If I had only known?”

 Being willing to absorb another’s experienced anguish or joy can often have influence in how we impact others, but also how we make a difference in our own lives. Remember when someone just smiled at you when you were having a bad day? Have you ever been in a tent alone with a mosquito?

Was there a difference made?

Our eldest son, who switched his various science majors more than once during his undergraduate career, came to the conclusion second semester of his Senior year that he never wanted to take another science class ever again. He faced a quandary as an integrated physiology major because he wouldn’t graduate on time with his current major nor would he be happy in a future healthcare provider career.

His intentions were good when he started. He loved science. Taking every advanced class at a university in which he could enroll, only to find after four years he no longer liked any of the classes. He did what he always did when he had major decisions to make; he called home. He was truly trying to reckon how to move forward, but also to let us know that we had just paid his four years of undergraduate studies that he may not actually use in the future. I give him credit for having the bravery to make that call. 

We listened to his options: continue with his loathed major and be one credit short causing him to go an extra semester or switching majors again, which may also cause him to extend his undergraduate career. As parents we listened to his angst, his reasoning. He was prepared for us to coax him to remain his course, but instead we listened to his intent. He truly no longer liked what he was studying. My husband summed it up well by telling him, “You have forty years to be miserable in your career, what’s another semester or year to figure it out?” 

It meant another $40,000 tuition added to our budget, but his ability to share his gifts in a profession he would enjoy were more important to us than the financial consequences. We ended the conversation with, “You will make the right decision for you. Just let us know what you decide after you look into your options.”

His trip to his advisor revealed that he could graduate on time if he switched his major to Biology. His counselor also let him know that the application process for graduate school was still open, so he proceeded to apply. He attended graduate school for hospital administration the following fall semester and completed his M.H.A. He has since found that his years of those advanced science classes has made him a more empathetic decision maker as a hospital administrator since he had a better understanding of what health care professionals and patients experience. He has never regretted his decision of switching gears when he was so near the end.

Our intentions were good when he called us, but I am thankful we truly listened to his concerns as he was struggling with a life changing decision. Had we not, the impact could have been very different.