It may seem like a small thing, but how we choose to respond when we do not fully understand the motivation behind the words and actions of others matters a lot; in fact, it often matters more than we realize. The meaning we assign and interpretation we give to what we do not fully grasp can have major consequences for our relationships, productivity, and happiness. When we assume that the intentions of others are negative, hurtful, or harmful toward us, we can set in motion a negative spiral that leads to misunderstanding, conflict, and mistrust, even when neither party planned—nor would choose—such an outcome. Yet, for most of us, assuming the worst when we do not know or understand the motivation behind the words and actions of others is more common than we might want to admit.
On the other hand, assuming the positive intentions of others, even when we are not sure of their motivations, can lead to a myriad of positive outcomes. In fact, assuming positive intentions is the first step in building and maintaining trust, whether that be in personal relationships, with colleagues, on teams, or when engaging with strangers.
Assuming positive intentions:
- Leads to better, more trusting relationships.
- Creates better opportunities for understanding and resolving conflicts.
- Reduces anxiety and stress.
- Lessens the likelihood of embarrassment and the need for apologies due to misunderstanding.
- Leads to a better outlook on life.
- Encourages others to respond with trust.
So, how can we take advantage of the benefits of assuming positive intentions? Here are five steps to accomplish just that.
First, we can cultivate the habit of suspending judgement and wait to draw conclusions until we are aware of the full circumstances behind what we hear and observe. When we assume negative motivations or are suspicious of something or someone, we tend to look for “evidence” to support our thinking. Rather than doing that, it is best to begin with a positive, or at least neutral, stance. As a result, we can avoid later having to apologize for our misunderstanding and then backtracking. An added benefit is that a positive stance often leads the other person to be less suspicious and more ready to collaborate.
Second, we might choose to take a position of curiosity. Start with the question, “I wonder why?” There may be things we do not know or understand. We might ask ourselves questions such as the following: What experience do we have with this person? What reasons might we have to not trust this person? What else might we need to learn?
Third, we can listen. Our initial goal, after all, is to understand. What do we need to know? We should try to understand the other person’s real motivations. We can listen for the context in which the other person is acting and speaking. What problems or challenges might the other person be facing? What worries and fears might be driving their behavior?
Fourth, we would do well to share our intentions. Having the other person guess whether we come with positive intentions risks further complicating the situation. When we share our positive intentions toward others, we can lower pressure, openly communicate, and increase understanding.
Fifth, if we discover the other person’s motives are not positive, then we can respond in an informed and measured way. If someone’s motive is to hurt or take advantage of us, we can respond assertively and take steps to protect ourselves, and we will be doing so with a more accurate understanding of the situation. Regardless, it is important to note that we do not necessarily give up any advantage when we start with the assumption
s that the other person’s motives are positive.
Life is full of faulty assumptions, misunderstandings, and conflicts, and there are few benefits, if any, associated with adding to the challenges life routinely presents to us. Fortunately, when we assume the positive intentions of others, we can sidestep unnecessary pain, embarrassment, and regret, while simultaneously building a path of trust.