Assuming Positive Intent





I have a confession to make: the other day, I was rude to somebody. I wasn’t horrible, mind you, just a bit snappish. It had been a long day and I was just done. I wasn’t proud of my behavior, but I forgave myself because I know that’s not who I am.


Of course, when someone else is rude to me, I’m usually not so forgiving, even though they too are probably just at the end of a long day and are usually very nice people. If someone else is rude, I’m inclined to attribute their rudeness to their being, in general, rude people.


Here’s the thing: you probably do the same. Most of us do. We rarely give others the benefit of the doubt we give ourselves.


The same goes for almost all our daily interactions, from confrontations in our personal relationships to negotiations in the professional setting. Most people mean well, but their actions may not always look like it. That’s why I’m working harder to assume that everybody I deal with is coming from a positive place.


Assuming positive intent isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always smart. When you assume positive intent in others’ behavior, you have a better chance of understanding what motivates them. If you can find out what’s behind their action, you have a chance of addressing the problem and coming up with a solution.


On the other hand, when we react from of a defensive posture, the other person can’t help but respond in kind, until a minor disagreement becomes a big deal.


I can’t claim to have invented the concept of assuming positive intent. Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi brought it into the mainstream (the earliest mention I can find is in a 2008 Fortune interview), but even she attributes it to her father, who I’m sure learned it from his mother, and so on.


We would all do well to assume positive intent in others. The world is full of seemingly angry people, but it’s in all our interests to look beneath the surface. They may look angry, but what they may be feeling is fear, or exhaustion, or mistrust, or any number of other emotions that masquerade as anger.


Most of us aren’t cartoon supervillains, hatching evil schemes to outmaneuver our rivals. For one, who has the energy for that?


No, the truth is we’re all just doing the best we can, at work, at home, and in our communities. Sometimes we mess up and sometimes we shine.


But, for the most part, we all mean well. And that’s a great place to start.