If I’m ever asked to share one piece of business advice – just one – it would be Assume positive intent. If I’m ever asked to share one piece of personal life wisdom, it would be the same thing: Assume positive intent. I’ve called the approach different things over time, but they all mean the same thing:
Don’t burn a bridge you might want to cross again one day
Investigation before castigation
Give people the benefit of the doubt and get the bigger picture
… and, so on.
Humans are meaning-making machines, conditioned to be curious about each other’s intent. It’s not easy for most people to accept praise or critical feedback; nor deliver or receive a kind act without seeking acknowledgement. We don’t understand all of the choices our colleagues and family make and difficult messages across multiple people or groups are hard to communicate well. We don’t trust easily. We can be suspicious about actions we don’t immediately understand and we spend a lot of waking hours being concerned about the agendas of the people around us.
Assuming positive intent requires us to assess all angles of the communication or issue, working with an understanding that things may not be as straightforward as they first appear. It opens us up to opportunities where before we might have reacted quickly closing all of those doors.
Assuming positive intent provides a way for us to think and respond differently, with empathy and curiosity. By assuming positive intent, we improve communication, build compassion and respect, and open ourselves up to better relationships.
This approach is so important during this period of global crisis. It is critical to be able to communicate with your communities when there is so much confusion injected into our lives and many serious decisions to make. It is useful and valuable to assume positive intent when we react to communications.
Social distancing, working from home and global health and economic concerns have recently tested our ability to communicate effectively, especially in business. Our teams, suppliers, and customers all have questions and concerns about real macro-environmental and social issues and there are no definite answers.
Face-to-face meetings have been reduced to virtually zero. Previously they provided opportunities to gather body language information from communications. Technology has been introduced rapidly to facilitate more video meetings and everyone has had to adapt swiftly. We rely on e-mail and instant messaging, channels that can be difficult to get communications across to groups without ambiguity.
Certainly, there will be times when positive intent is not the aim and regardless of our skills and tools, we have to deal with failure, conflict, and negativity. Some may experience manipulation, disappointment, abuse, or hearts may break. Negative intent requires a different response, management, and handling skills.
On a tough day, we might assume the worst from a communication and react before positive intent kicks in. If this happens, the skilled who are able to step back and assess the truth are immediately aware, regret their reactions, responses or barbs, and will need to clean up.
It’s healthier and much more rewarding to build your Assume Positive Intent muscle and recognise when it needs to kick in.