The Assumption of Positive Intent

Jun 2021

The assumption of positive intent essentially means to give others the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst. More specifically, it means to extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

Unfortunately human nature makes this incredibly difficult. We’re wired to be protective and tribal. These same traits that helped our earliest ancestors survive in the wild also hinder us from connecting meaningfully with others, especially if we perceive them to be outside of our tribe.

We’re subject to all sorts of cognitive biases that skew our ability to get along with others and make good decisions. One of these is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which observes our tendency to see others’ failures as a result of their personal shortcomings while reserving the benefit of the doubt for ourselves.

“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think”
― António R. Damásio

We have a choice in how we interpret the world and how we model our assumptions. We can choose to indulge our inner cynic and overemphasize others’ flaws and mistakes. This is the easy choice but reality is much more complicated. The most difficult work is to make a habit of imagining others complexly, recognizing their behavior as more a projection of their own inner state than something to be taken personally.

Of course this doesn’t mean ignoring or excusing bad behavior and ill-intent, just that we shouldn’t be so quick to draw conclusions and pass judgment. As soon as we enter a negative mind-space our judgment is compromised and it’s all downhill from there. On the other hand, when we start with the assumption of positive intent, it creates an upward spiral of interactions that fuels healthy relationships and cultivates trust.

I first encountered this idea while working through Brené Brown’s best-selling guide to leadership, Dare to Lead. In it she notes that many organizations adopt this as a core value while exactly none of them actually explain or teach the skill set to support it. What follows is an exploration of some of the tactics we can use to adopt this value as our own.


Examining our beliefs about others

Making the assumption of positive intent our default response requires examining our core beliefs about ourselves and others. According to Brown, the fundamental belief behind the assumption of positive intent is that other people are legitmately doing the best they can. Is this absolutely true most of the time? Maybe not, but we can’t know for sure.

In his timeless classic How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie points to this fact as one of three fundamental techniques for dealing with people: Never criticize, condemn or complain. Instead, try to honestly see things from the other person’s point of view, even if you think they’re in the wrong. Most people, in their own estimation, regard themselves as reasonable and unselfish (as evidenced by the Fundamental Attribution Error mentioned previously).

Leadership expert and author Kevin Eikenberry recommends beginning with two other fundamental beliefs about others:

  • 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.

With this frame of mind, you can ask yourself, “What are all the possible reasons someone is acting this way or responding in this way?” This is a brainstorming exercise. Afterwards, you still won’t know, but you will realize there are multiple options and you can choose to assume the positive.

Examining our beliefs about ourself

Byron Katie, known for her method of self-inquiry, The Work, offers a process that involves asking these four questions about our assumptions, in any given situation:

  • Is it true?
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  • Who would you be without the thought?

This process invites us to look critically at our default reactions and gives us the opportunity to pause and consider the situation with greater understanding.

Boundaries

Other than examining and reassessing the fundamental beliefs we have about ousrelves and others, we can also give ourselves a leg up by setting boundaries. In Brown’s research, she found that people who are good at setting and maintaining boundaries have the easiest time giving others the benefit of the doubt and assuming positive intent. When we believe someone isn’t respecting our boundaries, we assume the worst about their intentions. She also refers to this idea as Living BIG:

“What boundaries need to be in place for me to be in my integrity and generous with my assumptions about the intentions, words, and actions of others?”

Boundaries are invisible lines that we draw around ourselves to reinforce to others what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable. For more information on boundaries, with plenty of concrete examples, check out this article from Ness Labs.

In practice

When we recognize the power we have to influence others, even in the most subtle of ways, we see that every interaction is an opportunity to practice leadership and to foster closeness rather than tolerating and perpetuating division. Wielding that power requires clarifying our values and making a concerted effort to live into them.

We don’t overcome our tendencies toward tribalism and bias absolutely. It’s a continuous process of action and self-reflection. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort, rather that we should acknowledge our limitations with humility and practice with vigilance. We should be aware of our boundaries and carefully examine our tacit views about others’ and ourselves.

When we practice with the assumption of positive intent, and extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others, we have a powerful lever to transform our relationships at home, at work, and in our communities.

“If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”
― Mohandas Gandhi