Archives for posts with tag: assume positive intent

A very long time ago, my Traveling Partner said something to me which I found very peculiar. He suggested I “be less negative”. It struck me as peculiar because I didn’t define myself in those terms, and perceived myself as “being” quite positive. (I wasn’t. At all.) He pointed to the frequent use of negative phrasing in my speech, and sarcasm in my humor (which, by the way, I used heavily – but am fairly tone-deaf to, myself). I could not argue his point, and I really tried. I found myself having to agree that I was indeed fairly negative. Negative phrasing, negative outlook on life, awash in unsupported certainty, argumentative, and admittedly, on occasion (too many occasions) deeply in despair… yep. Negative. Negativity. Just all the nope to life’s questions.

It’s been a long weird path to here. This place in life where I find myself now is very different. “Being a positive person” isn’t something easily faked, or forced, and repeating wholesome affirmations in the mirror isn’t going to do it, either. It’s more subtle than that. Making that change from negative to positive requires some adjustments in implicit memory, implicit biases, and habitual behaviors, and takes practice. I found that it began most easily with accepting that I wasn’t positive in the first place, which was exceedingly difficult, initially.

By the beginning of this year, I was already in a very different place, and would have said that I am a fairly positive person. Kind. Compassionate. Polite. Helpful. …And still there was a tiny core of rot at the heart of all that, with the potential to color my thinking heavily, and not in any particularly helpful ways. A coworker, in the office, in conversation about work-related matters, calmly noted one way by way of feedback “you’re not assuming positive intent”.

I had come a long way toward becoming a positive person, but she was correct; I had not yet come far enough to allow myself to understand others as being similarly positive, similarly well-intended, similarly worthy and sufficient, each of us having our own experience. I still tended to assume the other human beings populating my experience may be acting on ill-intent. Her observation clung to me, and polluted my consciousness for days. Over weeks it actually began on change my thinking, as I considered it in the context of real life interactions, in the moment.  This, too, has been an interesting journey.

Assume positive intent.

Seriously. I’m not saying that there are no hazards in life, or that there are no “bad people” out there, but how many folks are actually scary dangerous killers with murder in their hearts? How many of those do you actually know, or may run into, ever? So… all those other people, the not scary dangerous killers with murder in their hearts people? Yeah, those other people who are neither you, nor a danger to you – what value is there in assuming they wish you harm, or may do you harm through ineptitude? And your loved ones? Surely they mean you literally and entirely no harm? (If any other thing is true about their state of mind, maybe choose your loves differently?) When we approach other human beings holding onto a state of consciousness that suggests they “may be up to no good” or that they constitute some as-yet-unidentified threat to us, our defenses go up, and we are not our own authentic selves. Sometimes we even behave or use language that can seem to provoke the very circumstances we seek to avoid. We send mixed messages, and our non-verbal communication doesn’t agree with our verbal communication. It’s all very confusing, and I noticed something wonderful when I began to live life differently by assuming positive intent; my social anxiety diminished.

Assume positive intent.

Seems simple enough (is). Just stop feeding the internal narrative that details how some other person means me harm, right? That and more. It’s a subtle thing. A colleague took a really really long break? Instead of being annoyed by that, assuming positive intent opens the door for concern – are they okay? Is there a reason they needed a long break? Is it an opportunity to be supportive, or to connect? That was the sort of thing I started with. I moved on to things like … that driver ahead of me slammed on their breaks suddenly – are they just a giant jerk who drives badly? Assuming positive intent reminds me to consider their circumstances from their perspective. Perhaps something startled them, or they had a foot cramp, or maybe I was following very closely behind them and their discomfort with that situation resulted in choosing to break suddenly to send a message (however dangerous and in poor judgment that seems, it is also simply a bit of communication, right)?

Assume positive intent.

I just kept at it. Looking for the situation in which my assumptions of anything besides positive intent were more useful and appropriate than if I would assume positive intent. More and more often, I found myself fully embracing that assumption of positive intent. Funny thing; my relationships improved. All of them. Work relationships. Romantic relationships. Friendships. I’m still thoroughly human. I still make mistakes. I still hurt people’s feelings without realizing it, and make assumptions that are in error. It’s a journey, and there is no map. 🙂 Assuming positive intent does seem to make most experiences, particularly shared experiences, so much more pleasant, generally. I have come to no harm through an assumption of positive intent. So… I think I’ll keep doing that. Assuming positive intent, I mean. 🙂

Hey… haven’t I written about this before? Yep. It’s still working. 😀 This one? This is a practice that could change the world…

Shall we begin again? 🙂

Three words, and a very challenging practice.

“Assume positive intent”… well… that seems generally like a very good starting point in most relationships. Certainly our loves can be assumed to have positive intent (elsewise perhaps we benefit from choosing our loves with greater care!) The average stranger in passing rates an assumption of positive intent, and even in the face of moments that might suggest that a stranger’s intentions are less than ideally positive; it’s highly likely that it is my own narrative coaching me to a different outcome than any action, choice, or intention of that stranger. Most of us, much of the time, are far to self-involved to willfully and deliberately, with consideration of the consequences, and planning of the details, do each other some harm. Hapless inconsiderate douchebaggery notwithstanding, most people, most of the time, are mostly doing something that is more or less, in that moment, their rather human “best”.  Assuming positive intent applies a little social lubricant to my interactions, rather in the same way that saying “please” and “thank you” do. Assuming positive intent is the flip side of being courteous.

I write this morning, thinking about “assuming positive intent” in the context of three experiences.

The first of these was a gentle chiding by a professional peer in response to a cynical remark I made in the office. She had replied, with some firmness, “you aren’t assuming positive intent”. She was right. I have since thought it over a lot. It was an important observation. Too often past pain and trauma in relationships, or current struggles that linger, become source material in my thinking and decision-making in the present. I can do better than that – with practice.

The next experience was my homecoming last night. It was obvious my Traveling Partner had been and gone. It was obvious because my produce delivery had been brought in, and because there were coffee cups and glasses left on end tables here and there, and a cushion moved to a “comfortable guest spot” in the living room (I’d left it by the patio door). A used tissue on the floor. A small decorative container I’d left closed, was left open. I started to be annoyed about having to pick up after people I didn’t hang out with… which was tested by also being pleased about the produce being brought in. An assumption of positive intent helped out here; by choosing willfully to assume positive intent, I was reminded that my Traveling Partner had a super full calendar yesterday, and likely hadn’t intended to linger at my place at all, possibly rushing off without double-checking that things had been tidied up. It made it a lot easier to get past an “I’m not the maid” moment.

The third experience was waking up this morning and reading (again) about the United States dropping a fucking “MOAB” on Afghanistan. Yeah. I’ll admit right now; I can’t find any room in my heart to assume positive intent on this one. There is no moment at which taking a human life by force holds an assumption of positive intent. Dropping a big ass bomb far away hoping to kill a couple dozen people just seems like … heinous short-sighted crassly violent stupidity. So we killed some people we’ve decided to define as “bad guys”, based on our own narrative… but… what about the other effects of slamming the planet with a big ass bomb? What about the earth itself? What about other people? (“We have no evidence of civilian casualties” is a pretty pitifully insensitive remark to be making, when the bomb that was dropped likely obliterated everything within a substantial radius, entirely.) What about… other life forms than human beings? Seriously. We’re just not “everything that matters”. What about desert foxes, wee mammals, birds, reptiles… what about the fucking environment we all live in? This? Not the time for assumptions of positive intent, because right here, it is plain to see the aggressive, violent, damaging action we’ve taken. It isn’t pretty. It’s not okay. It was toxic muscle-flexing, stupid, short-sighted, gross over-kill. Not an action taken from a position of assuming positive intent, or with any wholesome outcome in mind. The dead were the bad guys? Yeah, well – apparently so are we; dropping a bomb is not a good guy moment.

I take a deep breath and another sip of my coffee. I look back on a lifetime of experience and acknowledge that I didn’t always feel the way I do now about war – or assuming positive intent, either. Growth and change – and practicing practices, and choosing different verbs, and walking this path through chaos and damage, working to heal, and finding other ways to be than continuous raging fury – have taken me a very long way from that woman in the mirror that I was at 23. 53 is nearly over… 59 days remaining, then I’ll get to take 54 for a spin, and see how I like that one. I know one thing; I’ll be practicing assuming positive intent – and I won’t be dropping any bombs.

We change when we grow. There are verbs involved. I’ve had to begin again a whole bunch of times, and walk on from discouragement, from pain, and even from friendships that could not be sustained any longer. I’ve made choices to change. I’ve had change forced on me unexpectedly. I’m having my own experience. 53 is among my very favorite years of life… it’s had some lovely moments (quite a lot of them) and some interesting challenges. Totally worth all the verbs and practicing. 🙂

I look at the time; it’s time to begin again. 😀