Unlock the Power of Positive Intent

By Kevin Eikenberry

Positive intent sounds like a good idea. As we go through our day, we generally have a positive intent in what we do, right?

And yet, we sometimes wonder about others. We wonder about people's motives and agendas. And the more we wonder, often the more negative our assumptions become. I believe that assuming positive intent in others can be a cornerstone to highly effective teamwork, higher levels of trust, and much more.

That's why I want to help you unlock the power of positive intent.

What It Is

The power of positive intent comes when we assume it in others - but what exactly does that mean? Let's start there.

Assuming positive intent reflects our view of someone's actions. It means starting with the belief that a person meant well or was doing their best, regardless of what they said or did. It requires that we make a guess about what was in their mind. Assuming positive intent then means that the guess we make is also a presumption of the best case.

Assuming positive intent is always about our belief in someone's motives. It is how we see the unseen.

An Example

You are driving down the freeway. Someone speeds up behind you, swerves into the passing lane at a high rate of speed, passes you quickly, then moves back into your lane quickly, barely avoiding hitting another car and cutting you off.

What do you think?

Chances are your blood pressure went up a bit just reading the scenario. And I'll bet you have all sorts of things to say about their driving, and there isn't much positive intent in your comments. But if you knew they had a bleeding child or a wife in labor in the car, would you view the exact same behaviors differently?

When we know the context and situation and see that situation from their view, it can drastically change what we think about their behavior and choices, can't it? Further, if the driver passing you was someone you knew well, might your starting assumptions be different, based on what you know about them?

The traffic example shows us the concept, but since we won't see the driver again, it has little to do with our future, compared to how we view the intentions of those we work and interact with every day.

Where's the Power?

What we believe about what we see in the motives of others changes how we respond to them. When you believe people are trying, doing their best, or want the best in a situation, you view their resulting behavior differently than if you believe they don't care, are looking for the expedient solution, or taking the easy way out.

Yet if the behavior is the same, how do you "know" their intent?

The fact is that we treat them, interact with them, and trust them based on our belief about their intent. And most often, that is all in our head.

When you start with an assumption of positive intent, it changes your beliefs and your interactions with the other person. And your interaction with them influences how they see and interact with you. So when you assume positive intent, you create an upward spiral of interactions and build relationships and trust.

Of course, the opposite can happen too, when negative intent is assumed. Unfortunately, you have likely seen that far more often in your life.

Building the Habit

Lots more could be written about this, and perhaps I will write it. But let me give you one key to assuming positive intent: explore the possibilities, rather than judging others' intent immediately or without thinking.

When you see someone's behavior and wonder why they did what they did, stop short of assuming the worst.

  1. Start with these two ideas:

    • Their behavior made sense to them in the moment, even if it makes no sense or you disagree with it.

    • There are many possible reasons that led them to that behavior, not just the one you are immediately assuming.

  2. Then, suspend judgment and ask yourself, "What are the possible reasons why they responded this way?" Remember, you don't know, so you are brainstorming for plausible reasons for their behavior.

  3. Remember that after this exercise, you still don't "know" why they did whatever they did or said whatever they said. But now you realize there are multiple options, and now you can choose your assumption - including to assume the positive.

Assuming positive intent often goes against our habits. Yet when we can do it, we can fundamentally change the way we see others and change our relationships, and even our belief about humanity, for the better. The next time you are scratching your head or are frustrated by someone's behavior, try the exercise above. You will see that it changes your perspective and allows you to respond in a more intentional way yourself.