Assume positive intent for better relationships

Assume positive intent for better relationships

People are complex. We have a spectrum of view points and driven by many factors. This leads to reactionary responses to events or other people. The result is contention and conflict. We need to find a better way, and while I don’t know the perfect answer, we can start by one of my favourite phrases: Assume positive intent.

Let’s go through a workplace scenario.

Imagine you’re on a project under a tight deadline and you’re tasked with performance testing. You have two options, use existing pre-prod environments or creating a dedicated performance testing environment.

You’d like to understand what each option means in terms of timelines, effort, and cost. So you setup a meeting with a small group that can help answer these questions. Your intention is to understand the basics first before proposing a solution to a bigger audience, so you don’t waste people’s time and can provide accurate answers to the business.

Suddenly, you get an email from a stakeholder, cc’ing as many managers as possible, asking about details and stating the project is already behind schedule. The business stakeholder assumed work was being planned behind the scenes and the teams were preparing to start the work.

You scramble to conjure a response clarifying the intention and you update the meeting to accommodate all the extra people. The meeting happens and the business stakeholder leaves half way through, realizing the intention of the meeting was not what they assumed.

If the stakeholder had assumed positive intent, the result could’ve been very different. Maybe they would’ve sent an email to just you instead of adding all the other managers and causing a fuss. The morale wouldn’t have gone down for the team, and specifically more so for you.

Your manager is not out to get you or control you. The CEO doesn’t only care about money. Your parents do care for your happiness. That’s not to say there aren’t people with bad intentions. Of course there are. But deep down I believe the majority of people are coming from a point of view where their actions stem from good intentions, and those intentions come from a complex place. They may also prioritize their values differently than you. That is ok.

What’s important is to assume positive intent as a first response. When you assume positive intent, you stop the reactionary part of your brain from taking over. You start to contemplate other ideas and options. You give yourself time to think, listen, and respond. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You develop empathy. Best case, your positive assumption is true and a potential conflict situation is averted. Worst case, you have a challenge, which would be the case anyways if you didn’t assume positive intent.

Sometimes, the other party may be aiming to hit where it hurts or you can’t find a middle-ground. You may continuously assume positive intent, you continuously respond in a good way, but the other side doesn’t change. While each case is different, and I’m not sure I have the answers myself, one approach is to have a heart-to-heart conversation in a calm manner. Be upfront and do not sugarcoat. Give specific examples. This is where things get interesting. It could be that you are in the wrong or you missed something. So try to keep an open mind and find a win-win situation.