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Mindful Communication: Recognizing the Unseen Impact of Your Words

Dec 09, 2023
A wooden surface showing a cup of coffee and a notepad with the words



In today’s increasingly diverse workplaces, instances of humor often find their way into the daily interactions among colleagues. However, there are moments when the line between lighthearted banter and inappropriateness becomes blurred.

A well-intentioned employee may attempt to inject a touch of levity into the office atmosphere by sharing a joke. Unfortunately, the joke, despite the intent, may cross the boundaries of workplace appropriateness.

Astonishingly, when confronted about the inappropriate nature of the joke, the employee dismisses concerns, insisting that colleagues should simply "lighten up" because, after all, it was just a joke.

This incident provides a valuable lesson on the power of words.


The Difference Between Intent and Impact

Intent and impact are concepts often used in discussions around communication and behavior, particularly in the context of social interactions, relationships, and diversity and inclusion.

Here are definitions for both:



Intent refers to the purpose or motive behind an action, statement, or behavior. It represents the conscious or deliberate goal that an individual has when engaging in a particular action or communication. Intent reflects the individual's motive and what they aim to achieve.

Example: An employee makes a comment with the intent to be humorous, their goal is to make others laugh without causing harm or offense.



Impact refers to the actual effect or consequence that an action, statement, or behavior has on others, regardless of the original intent. It reflects how the action is received, interpreted, and experienced by individuals who are on the receiving end. In many situations, the impact can differ from the intended outcome.

Example: Despite intending to be funny, if a comment is perceived as offensive or hurtful by someone, the impact is the emotional reaction and the harm caused, irrespective of the speaker's initial intent.


Needless to say, in any interpersonal communication, understanding the difference between intent and impact is crucial. While intent sheds light on the speaker's motives, impact emphasizes the real-world effects on others. Understand that these effects may not always align with the original intentions.

Recognizing the distinction between intent and impact is essential for fostering effective communication and empathy, and creating inclusive environments.


Six Phrases to Avoid and More Respectful Alternatives

In our ongoing commitment to fostering a positive and inclusive workplace, it is essential to recognize the profound impact our words can have on those around us.

While intent often shapes our communication, we also need to acknowledge the actual impact our words may have on others.

When we recognize that impact can vary widely based on individual perspectives and experiences it allows us to communicate with empathy and sensitivity. In fact, instead of dismissing concerns with phrases like "It was just a joke" or "Don't take it too seriously," we need to actively listen and consider alternative ways to express ourselves.

In the book, 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say that Widen the Diversity Gap, Dr. Maura Cullen shares some phrases that may have a negative impact, despite our good intentions.

Below, you will find a few of them as well as better alternatives that could help foster a more positive and inclusive communication style. When we choose words that uplift, validate, and promote understanding, we can contribute to a work environment where everyone feels respected and valued.


  1.  I have ______________ (Black, gay, Muslim, etc.) friends.

Merely having acquaintance with someone from a specific group doesn't equate to comprehensive knowledge about all individuals within that group. Plus, keep in mind that your friend's experiences may not align with those of the person you're engaging with in conversation.

Better option: Speak only of your friend and not as a way to impress your colleague or gain favor with them. Remember that this is not an opportunity to "score points" with your colleague but, rather, to authentically discuss and share information about your friend.


  1.  I don’t think of you as…..

While your intentions may be well-meaning, expressing sentiments such as "I don't think of you as..." to a colleague can inadvertently lead them to feel marginalized. In interpreting this statement, they may perceive it as a subtle acknowledgment that you still appreciate or accept them despite a particular aspect of their identity.

Better option: Never diminish the importance of a key aspect of someone's identity. Remind yourself that noticing differences is a natural and completely acceptable part of working with and appreciating one another, especially in increasingly diverse organizations.


  1.  It was only a joke! Don’t take things so seriously!

This is a double insult. First, you say something that was obviously taken as inappropriate, and the recipient ends up addressing the issue with you. Second, instead of acknowledging your mistake, you insult them again by dismissing their reaction, and insisting they shouldn't take things so seriously.

Better option: There's no way around this. If you've offended someone, offer a sincere apology. Defensiveness won't help you in this situation, so a straightforward "I am sorry" is the only viable course of action. Use this incident as an opportunity for personal growth and learning.


  1.  'Is that your real hair?'(asking a Black woman about their hair)

Inquiring about a Black woman's hair is a definite way to make them feel alienated. Firstly, it encroaches on their privacy, and secondly, it objectifies and dehumanizes them. The textured hair of Black women is frequently subjected to biased perceptions, often being unfairly deemed "less professional" than smoother hair, leading to heightened anxiety about their appearance.

Better option: Please keep in mind that an individual's natural hair, irrespective of their ethnic background, does not influence their competence on the job. If you are really curious, don't hesitate to use resources like Google to educate yourself. This will provide you with the information you want while preventing you from offending a colleague.


  1.  Where are you from? (asking a fourth-generation Korean American)

While this question may not be inherently inappropriate, the context in which it is asked and the assumptions it may carry can be problematic. In this situation, you are likely assuming that the person was not born here, which can contribute to their feeling as a perpetual outsider, even if they were born here. Research shows that those of Asian descent are more likely to face questions about their origins compared to people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Better option: Strive to forge connections rooted in common interests or shared experiences. When seeking to bond with others, their physical appearance holds no significance.

Take a moment to view this brief YouTube video. It will give you a complete grasp of the impact of this question. Moreover, it's quite amusing!


  1.  Why are we focusing on differences? We are all part of the same race – the human race.

Even with well-meaning intentions, asserting that we are all part of the "human race" can unintentionally diminish the experiences of people of color. This statement is often used as a means for individuals, particularly those who are White, to sidestep discussions about race and privilege. When we choose not to acknowledge existing issues, we are essentially sidestepping the imperative to confront the persisting inequities and, more crucially, to remedy them.

Better option: These statements tend to minimize racial differences. Race constitutes a crucial aspect of an individual's identity and shapes their unique experiences. It also influences how they perceive and interact with the world. You should never trivialize or undermine someone's experiences based on their racial background. You also need to remember that there is nothing wrong with noticing differences. The problem is how you treat those differences.


 Final Thoughts

The power of words in today’s increasingly diverse workplaces cannot be ignored.

This exploration into the impact of language highlights the delicate balance we must strike between expressing ourselves and unintentionally causing offense.

It is clear that even with the best of intentions, certain phrases can carry hidden implications that may alienate or marginalize our colleagues.

By recognizing the potential impact of our language and striving for sensitivity, we can contribute to a workplace culture that values each individual and promotes a sense of belonging for all.



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