It’s Not About Intention, It’s About Impact

Author Robin DiAngelo of White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, challenges the assumption that racism has to be intentional. Most people feel good intentions exempt them from accountability. She calls for white people to examine their bias and its impact on people of color, not their intentions. This holds true for most offenses, whether it is racism, sexism, or other isms, including interpersonal conflicts.

As a couple’s counselor, I meet people who have been hurt by betrayal, abuse or neglect. Yet, they come to therapy with hopes of healing and reconciliation. The person who caused their partner’s pain generally wants their partner to know that they did not intend to cause pain. “I never meant any harm; I would never want to hurt you.” They are not monsters who deliberately inflict pain. Establishing good intention is a beginning, but is not sufficient to heal broken relationships.

Many people believe that if our intentions are good, then the impact of our behavior should not count. “I did not mean to do that, so therefore, you know, get over it.” Not so easy. The offender has to be held accountable for the impact to their partner. Speaking about intention can be an attempt to deflect criticism. It turns the conversation away from the painful impact, thereby minimizing the consequences of their actions.

A better response is, “I did not mean to do that, and I would never have wanted to do that, but I see that I have indeed done that, and for that I apologize. Where can we go from here?”

In Janis Abrahms Spring’s book, How Can I Forgive You?, she lists seven guidelines in making a good apology:

  1. Take responsibility for the damage you caused. For your apology to take hold, you must acknowledge your role.
  2. Make your apology personal. It’s not just an admission that, “I did something wrong”, but an admission that “I wronged you. I did this to you.”
  3. Make your apology specific. You don’t just say, “I’m sorry.” You say exactly what you are sorry for.
  4. Make your apology deep. If you want to be forgiven, you admit the whole wretched truth of what you did, naming the unflattering truth about yourself.
  5. Make your apology heartfelt. Your remorse must be real, profound and enduring, not self-serving, to rid yourself of guilt.
  6. Make your apology clean, straightforward and uncomplicated. No “buts” or defenses.
  7. Apologize repeatedly for serious injuries. A single apology may not be sufficient to restore your good standing.

Robin DiAngelo would add,

8.    Examine your bias and its impact. Work to right the personal and systemic impact of your actions.

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