Assuming Positive Intent: Or Not

May 1, 2024. By Lori Brewer Collins

Out of Tune by Jerry Park

If you believe someone has ill intent towards you, you’re right. Everything you see them do, every decision, glance, form of communication, or lack of communication, will confirm this expectation. Everything filters through this lens. Actions and interactions become evidence of the other person’s negative motivations further justifying the conclusions you’ve reached. Every. Conclusion.

And everyone pays a price. Because everything has now contracted to a pinhole view of the world. Our dualistic mind takes over and everything is cast in black and white, right or wrong – “you’re either with us or against us.”

Possibilities for collaborative problem solving disappear. Mature conversations never actually happen, so there’s no room for correcting inaccuracies. And since we’re not mind-readers, we make up stories instead that back-up our conclusions.

Contrast this with the expanded mindset of assuming positive intent.

Assuming positive intent fosters a capacity for perspective taking. This requires the ability of deep listening, inquiry, and thoughtful consideration of another person’s point of view.

Assuming positive intent also engenders a capacity for paradox – the ability to consider and live with the ambiguity of what appears to be conflicting ideas.

Assuming positive intent is harder. Much harder. Because to adopt this mindset requires a capacity for complexity. And relationships are nothing if not complex. Human beings are messy – it’s part of the wonder. And it’s part of the problem.

Assigning negative motivation, on the other hand, is easy. Seeing the world in dualistic terms sweeps away the cobwebs, crystalizes decisions, and renders a feeling of certainty. Voilá! Case closed. End of discussion.

And we all lose.

So ask yourself, are you more likely to assume positive or negative intent? What influences you one way or the other? And if there’s a person in your life you realize you assign negative intent to, what would your relationship be like if you let that go and gave them the benefit of the doubt?

It may be an experiment worth trying.

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