The new year brings with it a chance to set new intentions for the 12 months ahead.  As we all set our minds to achieve our New Year’s resolutions, I think it is valuable to consider our intentions vs. the impact we ultimately have. 

Have you ever been in the position where you are certain that you asked someone very clearly for what you wanted, only to leave the conversation feeling misunderstood?  It is amazing how much communication can happen between the lines, the words, or even between the gestures. It is amazing how quickly we can go from conscious to reactive. Old patterns can emerge within a conversation prompted by a simple glance at a watch. 

I once ran a women’s group during which the participants assured me they were asking for what they wanted in their relationships, but weren’t getting it because they were either with people who didn’t care, were inept, or were just plain mean. These women were convinced that their partners were not going to give them what they wanted. 

After some exploration, I gave them all an assignment. Over the course of the next two weeks, they were to ask for what they wanted at least once.  I proposed that the ask was two sentences and only two sentences: 

“Partner, I want ______ from you and it would look like______.  Would you do that for me?”  

Most of the women reported back that they had done this and been consistently disappointed.  When we “unpacked” their experience, not once were they able to stick to the protocol I proposed. 

For example instead of, 

I would like you to invite me to dinner in the next couple of days.  Will you do that for me?” 

It was: 

Why don’t you ever take me out to dinner without my suggesting it?” 

Their insertions of guilt, blackmail, verbal criticism, and defeatism were so habituated that they could not see them. The intention was to ask, but the impact was to shame, start fights, express contempt, and establish a no-win struggle.  

It became very clear that we need to shift our Mindsets and our work to impact.

These four elements were present in every crisis we addressed often showing up as misunderstandings because the impact was not aligned with the intention.    

  • Communication: Imago Relationship Therapy employs the skills of Intentional Dialogue to create safe conversations and leads to The Listening Cure.  “You never listen to me”  is a mantra found in most relationship conflicts; parent-child, romantic, friendships. Using the Imago dialogue to mirror what your partner is saying and help you to find common ground will move your conflicts out of reactivity and into understanding.  This step should be taken before any effort is made to influence others. It will lead to less reactivity and much more safety.
  • Nonverbal Cues:   We are vulnerable beings for whom the critical nature of the interactions we have, especially the nonverbal messages, have a huge impact on our sense of safety and belonging.  Learning to accompany statements with things like soft eyes and kind tone effect the reactive brain functioning of others, especially an intimate family member.  I had a startling moment in a training years ago when a member of the group reported that my non-verbal behaviors had convinced her that I didn’t like nor approve of her as a clinician.  I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about since what I SAID with my words in my feedback to her was, I thought, so clear and encouraging.  She told me that I crossed my arms while I listened to her tape and I didn’t smile at her – thus her conclusion.  I was completely unconscious of my body postures and stunned that I could have such impact unintentionally.  This was such a helpful awareness for me when I began to consider how often I was unaware of what messages I might be sending.  I know that I can’t help the conclusions others may draw, but I can help whether or not we talk about it.
  • Power: Understanding the basic need to feel one’s personal power is critical.  One very helpful training model that we have utilized is called PPIP, Positive Power and Influence.  In this model Positive Power is the goal and it is defined as the ability to achieve one’s objective and maintain relationship.  We utilize this concept to offer a challenge of developing a Positive Power ability in relationships. Practicing Positive Power is an excellent way to make sure your intentions match your impact. 
  • Responsibility: It’s no surprise that a core issue in the realm of power development is responsibility. What does taking responsibility mean and what does it look like?  I see taking responsibility as the commitment to making good agreements.  It is also critical to have the willingness and ability to successfully repair connection when ruptures occur.  Good repairs are one of the three fundamental indicators for successful relationships.  People can tolerate a wide learning curve in the effort to give and take responsibility when they can also make mistakes, own them, and do something to make it ‘better’.

These elements are most successfully accomplished by focusing on the strengths present in each member of the relationship, instead of the reactive focus on their deficits. So much of our work in Imago focuses on the “space between”.  This is the space where our intentions can get muddied and buried in reactivity. 

So as you are setting your intentions for this year, and as you make space for your goals, be mindful of how you are asking for what you want. Be clear and intentional about your word choice, and your body language. Understand that asserting your personal power in a positive way is the fastest way to match your impact to your intention. Should you find yourself in a conflict, remember that taking responsibility, owning your actions, and making the necessary repairs will usher you into positive and successful relationships. 

Happy New Year! 

Wendy Palmer Patterson 


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One Response to Intention vs. Impact
  1. Thank you. This is such a helpful article. Please keep similar ideas and insights coming.


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