The Power of 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:
- 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.
- 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.