Difficult Conversations: Impact-Intent

Have you ever innocently said something, and the other attacks you as if you were an enemy?


provides us with a handy lens to disentangle the difficult communication problems.

God has called us into koinonia in community, both for our growth and to minister to others. Communication is the lubricant for any good relationship. What happens though when we have difficult conversations, misunderstanding, battles over words? What follows has been extremely helpful for me, and also I’m still on a steep learning curve!

A simple case study. “Mr. X” says something to “Mrs. Y.” Mrs. Y responds: “Why were you trying to hurt me?” Two common mistakes lie latent in this difficult conversation.

1st Responder Mrs. Y: Common Impact-Intent Mistake:

Our assumptions about intentions are often wrong. Mrs. Y feels hurt; therefore she assumes Mr. X intended to hurt her. She feels slighted. It’s important for her not to stuff the hurt. Her  false logic though says Mr. X must have intended to slight her. This is judging and judging is sin.

Judgment sinfully projects inner motives or attitudes on the other, which we cannot know. Our thoughts spring up so automatically that we may be unaware that our conclusions are not facts, but only assumptions. Mrs. Y either strikes back with words or hides, burying her pain in silence. Both responses undermine community.

  1. Judging imposes our values or standards on others as if the were Reality; discerning looks through God’s perfect standard to focus on what is clear and crucial.
  2. Judging projects unseen motives on the other (“You meant to…”); discerning focuses on visible actions (Matthew 7:20).
  3. Judging unfavorably places us above the other as their moral superior; discerning first acknowledges that we are both still in-process; builds up others as equals; asks questions to inquire about the other’s actions to first understand in order to deepen relationship.

What Mr X did to Mrs. Y may have been a violation of the law of love. What Mrs. Y did to Mr. X if she judged most certainly violated the law of love. Only One can judge and love simultaneously so Jesus commands us not to judge (Matthew 7:1-2).

1st Responder Mrs. Y: Better Impact-Intent Response:

First, disentangle impact from intent without any assumptions about the intent. The first step to any problem solving is to un-bundle issues so we can resolve one at a time. The law of love insists that we think the best about others until disproved. Yes, Mrs. Y was hurt, yet Mr. X may not have intended to distribute pain. Other explanations are plausible.

Second, gently share the negative personal impact on you, without accusations. Your feelings are real. Don’t hide them, if we want to go deeper in relationship.

Third, then inquire about his intentions without projecting on him. And listen patiently (James 1:19-20).

Fourth, expect some defensiveness from him and don’t react negatively. This is a dialog with the intent that both clarify. If the two cannot come to agreement, then “agree to disagree without being disagreeable.”

2nd Responder Mr. X: Common Impact-Intent Mistake:

Good intentions don’t sanitize bad impact. Mr. X’s common mistake is to first clarify his true intentions. He has been misunderstood. A simple clarification will alleviate the problem, right? No! No!

This feels like blame-shifting to Mrs. Y. She is hurt. When she hears this clarification, she hears it as justification or blame shifting. Her inner conversation may be: “If it’s not his fault, then it must be mine!”

The way of Jesus is to consider others before ourselves (Philippians 2:4). The one another” instructions in Scripture are first directed toward others. What Mr X first said to Mrs. Y may not have been a violation of the law of love. However, if Mr. X first seeks to be understood by clarifying his intentions, this self-focused response (thinking of ourselves before others) is a violation of the law of love.

2nd Responder Mr. X: Better Impact-Intent Response:

If Mrs. Y responds with the better response, listen with compassion and dialog with the goal to deepen relationship.

If Mrs. Y responds with her mistake, please don’t react negatively when you hear “You have bad intent!” This simply escalates the battle.

First, respond with James 1:19, quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to anger.

Second, overlook the accusation and recognize she is communicating two messages. First, “I know what you intended,” and second, “I got hurt.”

Third, focus on her 2nd message. This is true. She was hurt, whether intentionally or intentionally, whether you contributed or not. Listen for her feelings and respond gently and with compassion. Don’t counsel Mrs. Y. this is about her pain. She must first know that you understand how this hurt. She doesn’t care what you know until she knows you care.

Four, if Mr X intended to attack Mrs. Y, confess and ask forgiveness quickly…for our good. When we sin against another, forgiveness frees us, and may also lead to mutual reconciliation. Jesus has some strong words about this in Matthew 5:21-26. If Mr. X is unaware of any deliberate intent to attack, openly admit the complexity of our intentions and apologize where appropriate. Let Mrs. Y know that you take this seriously, and will bring it to the Lord to expose anything you may be blind to (see Matthew 7:1-11 for Jesus’ helpful process). At times (depending…exercise discernment), it may be appropriate to ask: “Would you be interested in knowing why I said that?” Be satisfied if Mrs. Y says, “no.”

Summary: As we practice these better responses, we will learn to hear/sense harsh start-ups to conversations, especially if we speak through the lens of 2 Timothy 2:24-26. We will learn how to cool conversations rather than heat them up. Add your own thoughts freely since the communication process is much more complex than this simple example (this PDF is printable). Work hard on this healthy Impact-Intent dynamic.

For more approaches to practically implement our Christian life into daily life, see partnering247 blog.

Also, since the farther back we go, the further forward we can see, I begin my thinking with the relational Trinity and our design in His image. This fries my mental circuits, yet ravishes my heart. If you have interest, the blog Beholding the Trinity focuses on the relational Trinity and His impact on our everyday lives.

This comes from an in-process book on Bounce Well,” available as a free PDF download. I invite suggestion by using the comment section on this post.

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