The Power of Positive Intent

Oct 23, 2023
Positive Intent

It is essential to “assume positive intent.” This is a practice I have used for years now to support a strengths-based approach to relationships within teams. It has had the power to transform the default setting most of us have, which is often one of blame, distrust, finger-pointing, self-protection, and judgment. That default is not intentional but simply learned behavior fed by exposure to news, media, and culture. If you are like me, assuming positive intent is not a given but a daily re-framing that requires practice. Our default setting looks something like this:

At work:
  • I send an email with a question, request, or offer.
  • There is no immediate response.
  • My brain begins to list the reasons why there is no response.
  • The narrative is written by my own insecurities rather than possible facts.
  • My anxiety goes up; they are slowing me down.
  • Blame replaces curiosity.

Usually, the real story is simply that people are busy, and we have not accounted for their story—the story that they are doing the best they can.

At home:
  • My son/partner washes the dishes.
  • He leaves one pot on the stove.
  • I assume he only did half the job.
  • I point it out.
  • He feels bad/mad.
  • He is less inclined to do the dishes.

Instead, I could simply assume positive intent: my son wanted to help but missed the pot. I thank him for helping, making him more inclined to do it again, and both of us leave feeling good about the interaction.

I am sure you can think of a million times your default setting got in the way of assuming positive intent. Really it comes down to this: most people are trying to be their best selves, but stuff gets in the way. So how do we remember we are dealing with a person, NOT a moment?

Here are some things that help me practice positive intent:

1. Get to know something about those you work/interact with that humanizes them. Knowing these things can help when something goes wrong because you have connection to fall back on.
  • What do they like to read?
  • What’s their hobby?
  • Who do they admire?
  • Do they have pets, kids, or are they caregivers?
2. Practice reframing your thinking.
  • Instead of “What is wrong with them?” ask “What happened to/or is happening for them?”
  • Instead of considering “what you think might be going on,” identify “what facts you know.”
  • Change blame to curiosity.
3. Practice rephrasing your words.
  • Change things like “That’s not right,” to “How did you get there?”
  • Instead of “This needs to get done,” say “This is hard, let’s take a break, refocus, and try again.”
  • Move from “That wasn’t what I meant” to “Help me understand what you are hearing.”
4. Thank people regularly—make it a daily practice.
  • It reminds you to look for the strengths in each other.
  • It calls you to notice that people do great things, maybe small great things, all the time.

Fundamentally, we all look at the world through a slightly different lens, but we all want to be happy and avoid struggle. Assuming positive intent simply encourages us to connect and seek to understand.

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