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Intent vs. Perception

by Steve Ritch

My office has been discussing cultural competence and the idea of intent versus perception recently. All of this came about through a desire to be more aware of how we work with each other and how we talk to one another. Often, we communicate in ways that obfuscate or muddy the very meaning that we are trying to convey with our words. We sometimes complicate the simplest conversations until the people involved are left feeling confused or apprehensive about the "hidden" meaning behind the discussion. Usually, that is the last thing that we intend.

Sometimes we are unaware that our words or tone may have an entirely different implication for the individual or individuals we are addressing. Vocalization and inflection can mean different things to people from other cultures, for example. Innocent conversations may have unintended meaning for someone whose life experience differs from ours.

So, if we are aware that the perception of the person receiving the message may be different from our original intent, how do we avoid hurt feelings and misunderstandings? Surely, it should be possible to convey meaning in a way that is relatively fool proof?

Yes and no. When we talk with others from a different life experience, national origin, or demographic group, we have to be aware that we each bring our own biases into any given situation. We all experience life differently. We may even be from a similar demographic group as another person, but because of our differing life experiences, we might have radically different responses to the same messages.

Perhaps because we are involved in the field of communications, we think that we should not have problems in getting our intent across to others. We may believe that, as communication professionals, we shouldn't have to analyze our words with the same scrutiny that other professionals may need to in their daily interactions. After all, shouldn't we easily be able to convey our meaning to our colleagues and our clients or patients? Shouldn't we have some sort of innate connection with language that allows us to transcend any perceived issues in our messages?

I am not sure about you, but I frequently have to say, "I am so sorry, but that is not what I meant." It would be rare indeed to speak with anyone else and never have a miscommunication. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes no matter how careful we try to be in the choice of our words, we inadvertently convey a message in our delivery that we did not intend. For example, if we have a sleepless night and have to try and convey a sense of excitement or energy in a message the next morning, our fatigue could be interpreted as boredom or as the lack of belief in the subject matter. The intent of the message might be overshadowed by the physical exhaustion.

So, what do we do? How do we communicate without offending someone? Just remember that the best thing we can do with any communication is to be respectful and to be honest. Few people are real experts in how to change the perception someone has from the intent that we try to communicate; however, the following general tips seem to be common in the various resources available to clarify our communications:

  • Recognize that others may have a different perception of the message we are sending from what we originally intended.
  • Try to clear up any miscommunications as soon as possible in a non-confrontational manner.
  • Be open to looking at messages through the viewpoints of others and revise messages as needed.
  • Finally, have a few trusted colleagues or advisors review messages that may be particularly sensitive, before they are delivered, to get a variety of opinions. Never deliver a sensitive or potentially volatile message to an audience without first having a few neutral parties review it for content, tone, and context.

We all have different viewpoints and styles of communication. Sometimes differences may be cultural, and sometimes they are due to different life experiences. Simple, honest, respectful communications will sometimes go a long way in preventing miscommunications. However, when inevitable misperceptions arise, be sure to address them as soon as possible in an open, non-confrontational manner. Sometimes, the best thing we can say to someone else is "I'm sorry; that was not my intent."

ASHA Corporate Partners