Assuming Positive Intent

July 28, 2016 by School of Medicine Webmaster

I was speaking with someone recently who had been having issues with relationships at work.  He had decided to work on improving his interactions with others, and reported that things were going much better.  When I asked him what he found most helpful, he said that it was assuming positive intent. Instead of judging others, and often automatically assuming they were doing something that irritated him out of malice or incompetence, he had begun to pause and question his own assumptions.  In response to noticing his own irritation, instead of reacting negatively in the moment, either outwardly or in his own mind, he began to ask himself why someone might act as they had.  If someone did something that he viewed was too slow, he noticed his tendency to judge them, and assume they were  uninterested or lazy.  As soon as he noticed this, he began to ask himself if there could be another possibility. For example, maybe they were actually working two jobs to support their family, and were tired from already having put in 8 hours elsewhere.  He noticed that when he did this, his attitude changed. Instead of being angry and frustrated, he became curious.  And once he was curious, he could approach them differently, perhaps asking how things were going rather than reacting with criticism.  The more he did this, the more people began to respond to him more positively, and that instead of often seeming to ignore his comments, they became more cooperative and willing to work together. As a result, he was enjoying work more, and getting more positive feedback from both his coworkers and his supervisor
So why do we tend to judge others so much? When we practice mindfulness, one of the things we can be mindful of are our own thought processes.  As an example, when someone acts a certain way, we may have a negative reaction to them. Since sensory input is first processed in the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, our first reaction to their action is emotional.  Then the input is relayed to our thinking brain, and we analyze it. But an emotion has already been associated with the thought so we do not view the thought purely rationally, and as a result we often jump from observing a behavior to assigning a motivation based on our emotional reaction.  This helps explain why, when we’re in a hurry and someone is doing something slowly and holding us up, we feel irritated, and may automatically think they are lazy or incompetent. We often act as if this assumption is true, and react to the other person with criticism or in another negative way, but in fact we don’t really know their motivation.  This tendency to judge the intention of another person based on an automatic judgment of their behavior, giving more weight to their character than the situation, has been referred to as “fundamental attribution error”.  The way we recognize when we are making such an error is by slowing down and becoming aware of our thought processes, noticing thoughts as just thoughts, not as truths.  If we don’t do this, we often find ourselves caught up in our thoughts, assuming they are true when they may not be.
So if we slow down and notice our feelings, and also are aware of our thought processes, we can choose to respond differently.  We might say to ourselves, “Oh, that person is working slowly, and I notice I am feeling irritated and judging them negatively. I wonder if there is another reason for their actions? Perhaps they are just tired.”  When we do this, we may notice a shift, moving from judgment to curiosity. And once we become curious, we have many more choices about how to respond, among them choosing to assume positive intent.  We might then ask a question “How are you today?” or we could just smile and say “Thank you. Have a nice day.”  Often we may find this leaves both us and the other person feeling better.  Even when we do have to give someone feedback about behavior that we think needs to be changed, it is often easier and more productive to start from assuming positive intent and asking questions than jumping to conclusions and beginning with judgment and demands.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings