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Intention and Impact: Two Sides of a Coin

Last week, while driving with my 9 year old son on a particularly challenging day (to put it mildly), a car swiftly cut in front of us. My lizard brain took over and I exclaimed something along the lines of “Seriously, what are you doing?”. Not surprisingly, my son echoed my sentiment and followed with: “Hey, you! Pay attention to where you are going! How could you do that?”, directed to the other driver. His intense reaction caught me off guard and immediately made me realize the unintended lesson I was teaching him: reactivity, judging and blaming. Not at all aligned with who I am and what I believe in.

My mindfulness training kicked in, and I paused and took a few calming breaths. I was able to recompose myself and say: “Honey, I got scared when the car abruptly cut in front of us, and my initial reaction was to become upset with the driver. However, after taking a breath, I was able to think straight and remind myself that none of this makes the driver a bad person. We really don’t know what is going on for them. Perhaps they did not see us, or maybe they were in a rush due to an emergency. What I do know is their action of cutting in front of us does not necessarily make them bad. They are actually doing the best they can with the situation they are in and the thinking they have right now. And us getting upset at him does not help the situation.” As I conveyed these words, I got a stare back from my son, the one that shows me that something is stirring inside that little mind.

We are often fast to judge people when their actions inconvenience us. The first instinct is often to assume they are malicious, careless or ill intentioned. The reality is that most of us do not wake up in the morning and plan to be a jerk or cut people off in traffic. Or to send nasty emails, or to be passive aggressive or to leave the dirty dishes in the sink on purpose. For the most part, we are well intentioned beings that want to be happy, achieve our goals and feel safe, respected and loved. And sometimes (or often) our actions or words come across to other people as aggressive, disrespectful, hurtful or inconsequential.

One of my favorite learnings from the “Search Inside Yourself Leadership Training”, a mindfulness and emotional intelligence-based program I facilitate for organizations, is that “Impact is not Intention”.

We judge ourselves based on our intentions. And we judge others based on the impact that their actions and words have on us. Consider a scenario where we cut someone off in traffic because we have a pregnant woman in the passenger's seat who is about to give birth. Our intention is to ensure this woman’s safe arrival to the hospital. However, for the person being cut off, the impact is quite different. Just as I initially did when driving with my son, anyone might feel personally attacked and judge the other driver as careless or selfish, which in the case of someone rushing a woman in labor to the hospital, could not be further from the truth. And by judging others, we get upset, angry and experience all sorts of unpleasant emotions.

This is not to say that we should go around doing well intentioned things without considering the impact on others. Our actions have consequences and if we are not aware of that, we will have a hard time living in a society filled with spoken and unspoken rules and regulations that are created in order to maintain order, safety and some level of predictability. If you get caught cutting someone in traffic, you get a ticket. If you get caught in a lie, chances are you will no longer be trusted. Those are consequences, which are different from judgment.

Being a speeder or a liar does not necessarily make one a bad person. It makes them someone that made a choice that is not aligned with the rules or expectations from others and that will have consequences. A choice that was the best option they could access at that moment, with the thinking they had.

Raise your hand if you never broke a rule, exceeded a speed limit, cut a line or told a lie (for those of you out there that pride yourselves for never lying, think about Santa Claus and tooth fairy tales told to kids, or even the lies you have told yourself about the reasons why you make certain choices…). We usually have really good reasons for our actions, even if they are not aligned with the”rules”, and we focus on our intentions to justify them.

When we are able to replace judgment with curiosity and compassion, we have the power to change the experience for the other person involved in the situation and, perhaps most importantly, change our own experience. Rather than succumbing to anger or a sense of imbalance when someone cuts me off in traffic, embracing compassion enables me to avoid those intense emotions that might lead to words and actions I will likely regret later. Especially if my 9 year old son is witnessing it. Instead I can ask myself what might have led that person to choose that action and even reflect on what I can do to support them.

All human beings are wired for empathy and compassion. This ability can be tuned up or down depending on environmental conditions. It goes down when we feel different and separated from each other, when we see ourselves in different groups from others (think religion, political views, sports teams, favorite color, preference between Coke or Pepsi, anything that places ourselves in separate buckets). At the same time, by seeing similarities amongst ourselves and wishing the best to others, we can dial up our capacity for compassion and train our brain to move away from judgment and from experiencing the consequences associated with it. Given that all human beings are 99.9% identical from a DNA standpoint, it should not be that hard to find what any of us have in common.

So next time you start judging someone, be it a stranger cutting you off in traffic, or a loved one that is getting on your nerves, stop for a moment to think about what you both have in common and to wish them well. Anything from how you look, to what you like, to what you feel or want to feel could led to similarities. If it seems really hard to find anything you have in common, it’s quite likely that you both share the sense that you are right, or that you want to be heard, or that you want to feel respected. That’s already a similarity.

By seeing similarities and wishing people well, we increase connection and therefore capacity for compassion. And the good news is that, even if this is not something that comes naturally to you, it can become a habit. Our brain is malleable so the more we practice seeing similarities and wishing well to others, the more it becomes the default reaction.

I certainly can attest to the power of training compassion in my own life. I am currently much more likely than before to extend curiosity and compassion to people that might feel like a threat to me. And just the other day another piece of evidence about our ability to grow compassion materialized: I was driving with that same son, and a truck speeded by our side, REALLY close to my car. I got scared, which my son immediately noticed. This time I just took a breath and stayed silent. And to my delight my son looked at me and said: mom, they are doing the best they can.

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