Assuming Positive Intent
We all have a few 'resting assumptions' that we, often subconsciously, place on other humans. These assumptions come from our experiences earlier in life. If we were abused physically or verbally even to a small degree, we might have an assumption that all people can be cruel and hurtful unless proven otherwise (the depth of our assumption determines the evidence-based approval process). If we grew up in a competitive environment, we might assume that everyone is trying to take something from us, or use us to move up the achievement ladder. These are extreme examples used to illuminate the concept of assuming intent.
If you think about it just briefly, what do you typically assume about the average person you meet or work with? That they're hiding something? That they have a sexual prerogative? That they're just a human being looking to connect in a nonintrusive way? Do you assume of others what you assume of yourself... that they're tired and don't want to be bothered? That they're insecure? That they're counting down the minutes until their next pizza slice?* (*The Pizza Assumption: it's extremely common, but there are some people out there not thinking about pizza at all, if you can believe it. I can't).
The interesting part is: when you assume negative intent of the people around you, you miss out on their best actions and qualities, while 'preparing' for the types of actions you can never be prepared for. It's impossible to know what everyone else is really thinking or intending, and no amount of worrying about the worst case scenario is going to help you in the long run. Better to sharpen your intuition (based in actual, open listening, not assuming) so you know what situations to avoid, than to constantly worry about what could lurk in dark corners of every relationship.
Assuming positive intent, however, has a different effect. It helps you stay calm and present in the unknown. It gives everyone around you a welcome chance to step up in the light of someone else's belief in them, and it opens you up to beautiful moments and opportunities you might otherwise miss. Assuming positive intent is essentially believing the best in humanity instead of the worst. Because our brains constantly filter out the things that don't fit our belief systems, we're generally going to see more of what we search for, and if we're searching for the best in humanity, we're going to find it. Take John Krasinski... for his new show 'Some Good News' he puts out calls on Twitter for nominations and reports on incredible stories of optimism and bravery among us. He doesn't have to search very far... millions of people around the world are contributing stories and posting tributes and kind comments. But he had to first believe that good humans are out there, and put out that call.
I know this is just a basic explanation, with basic examples, and the real world can be so much more complex. When you interact with someone, there is so much to take into account: do we feel safe around them? Do they share our beliefs? Are they clean and prepared and organized? Do they trigger us in ways we're not necessarily conscious of? Do we have beliefs about them based on 'things we've heard'? Does their body language and tone of voice put us at ease? Are we too nervous or preoccupied to even be present with them? Do they remind us of someone? Do they want pizza? It's a lot to think about.
That's why having assumptions can help us out sometimes. And the most helpful assumption is a positive one. After all, you are dealing with a human being. They have (usually decades of) life experience. They have a rich inner world. They have people they love. They have things they've learned and are in the process of learning. They have their own assumptions and insecurities, and if they're out in the world, cordially interacting with you, they probably have more in common with you than you might think. Perhaps a family to support, perhaps a wellspring of goals and dreams, perhaps an untapped capacity for deep kindness and understanding, just like you.
Positive intent works wonders, with strangers and with long time acquaintances and family members. It can be really tough with family--when you've known someone in close quarters for 10 years+ your assumptions about them can feel permanently engraved. But, they are evolving, growing human beings and they have the capacity to change just as you do. That doesn't mean you need to make a point to call your racist uncle, your smothering aunt, or that cousin who owes you money, every week. It just means that deep down, they're still human beings. Their old beliefs, however stuck and however different from yours, can often be traced back to a simple desire to provide for and take pride in their life and family. When you find the common positive intent...you have something to work with, something to grow from in your interactions. When you assume there's nothing positive about them, you sabotage your own growth and make it even harder to communicate: as they might dig deeper into their crappy opinions because they don't feel heard.
Am I great this? Not all the time, but I'm working on it, and when I catch it in action, it works beautifully. It is a relief sometimes to just believe in the more heartfelt intention of a person. It is exhausting, worrying about what malicious intent could be around every corner. Starting with a positive intent, especially with people you've just met, can be joyously energizing. It doesn't mean you have to invite every stranger in for tea. It's a way of being a little more OK with the world around you, even when it's not fully understood. It's leading with common humanity instead of fear. I have come as far as I have, because of generous folks who have believed in my positive intent.
Last thing: you know who often most needs a little more positive intent? You. Yourself. From you. When you feel hopeless or trapped in a situation of your own making, trace the events back to your positive intent. We're all out here, being highly imperfect and making mistakes. That's how we make sh*t better. So don't be hard on yourself. Don't be hard on anyone right now if you can manage it.