Friday, January 8, 2016

Even Well-Meaning Words Can Hurt - What Can We Do When It Happens?

Have you ever heard an exchange like this?

Person A. < some remark >
Person B. "Hey! That's not nice!"
Person A. "Jeez, lighten up! I was just joking."

What happened here is that Person B doesn't understand the difference between Intention and Impact.

Intention is whatever result Person B wanted their words to have. In the case above, they probably wanted people to laugh. On the other hand, impact is the emotional meaning that Person A received. In the case above, Person A felt slighted in some way - probably by one of the common "isms": sexism, racism, etc.

A tool I learned to work with Intention and Impact is called Ouch / Oops. I have only tried it in groups that are already close, but I bet it would work in somewhat mature teams as well. When a person receives a negative Impact, they can tell the other person: "Ouch" or: "That was an ouch for me." 

Here's the same example as above, but with Ouch:

Person A. < some remark >
Person B. "Ouch." or "That was an ouch for me."
Person A. "Oh, I'm sorry. What did I say that hurt?

Person B.
Person A. "Wow, I had no idea that what I said could be taken that way. Thanks for explaining it.

Here is another version of the above example, except that when Person B points out the impact, Person A can see the problem right away.

Person A. < some remark >
Person B. "Ouch." or "That was an ouch for me."

Person A. "Oh right, I'm sorry. I see what my words implied. That wasn't what I intended. Thanks for pointing it out."

By contrast to Ouch, Oops works in the opposite direction. A person says something, catches a possible Impact of their own words, and then uses Oops. Here's our example again, this time with Oops. Notice that Person A speaks twice before Person B speaks:

Person A. < some remark >
Person A. "Oops. That might have a different impact than I intended. I'm sorry. Let me say it this was instead: ..."
Person B. "Yeah, the first way didn't feel good. Thanks for catching it."

It is important here that neither person belabor the point during an Oops or an Ouch. The point isn't to punish person A. Person A needs simply to recognize their impact and express a brief apology. From there, both people move on. Any additional apologizing or lecturing can lead to hurt.

Receiving "Hey! That's not nice!" is uncomfortable. Often, a"Hey! That's not nice!" response is met with defensiveness. This could be because a part of the speaker may feel shame, and sometimes a way to deal with shame is to lash out and blame the other person. By contrast Ouch offers the possibility of the parties involved learning something and becoming closer. Being on the receiving end of Ouch may still be unpleasant, but is less likely to invoke shame. Calling "Ouch" focuses on the impact on the listener while presuming good faith on the part of the commenter, rather than implying that the commenter is mean, insensitive, or prejudiced. Similarly, with the focus on the impact received, there is less room for someone to be misjudged as touchy or over-sensitive.

Oops is a way of acknowledging that the listener has valid feelings and that the speaker's words may have been received as hurtful, but that the speaker doesn't intend to hurt the listener. Like with Ouch, this offers the pair the opportunity strengthen their relationship.


  1. Transparent confrontation. Helps get it out in the open and may help shut off some negative internal talk that would fester had a tool for surfacing it not been available/used.

    Thanks Jeff

  2. Right! Some folks think of confrontation as a purely negative thing. But when it is done in a respectful manner like this, confrontation can have the positive outcomes you describe. Thanks for the comment!