I believe that learning how to assign and even to assume the positive intent of others is one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do over the past several years.
I first remember hearing about this concept from my father as he taught an adult Sunday School class that I was attending. He explained that, when someone seems to be angry with you, they very well may not be at all. They might be dealing with a difficult personal or family issue or they could even be experiencing chronic pain – nobody, my father explained that Sunday morning, has an easy time being nice to other people when they have chronic back pain.
Well, that made and still makes perfect sense to me. In addition to the point that people always have other things going on in their lives that we can’t possibly know about, another point is that none of us is the center of anyone’s universe except possibly (probably?) our own. The idea that I would do something purposefully to make a friend or family member of mine upset or to offend them utterly baffles me. I don’t know why I would spend any time trying to do such a thing.
And if I wouldn’t spend my time doing something like that, then why would I assume that anyone else would do such a thing to me?
That was enough to convince me and over the years I’ve gotten much better at assigning positive intent to others and not taking personally any differences of opinion or belief.
The assumption of positive intent has made a huge difference in my life and has been very freeing. I’m free to believe that I’m not the center of anyone else’s world and that nobody is messing with me by just living their lives.
One of the most important places to assume positive intent these days, in my opinion, is online, but it’s also one of the more difficult situations to assume positive intent. We are now exposed to so many more of our friends’ and family members’ beliefs and actions than we were before social media came around that it’s bound to be a rough transition. Family members interacting with high school friends and college friends and parenting friends… it can be a mess sometimes.
It can also seem, occasionally, as though people are posting negative things that are directed right at us and at our choices or beliefs. In reality, the people posting them probably just saw something that lined up with their own beliefs and posted it because they liked it – not because they’re thinking about how you do or believe the opposite and they want to send you some sort of cryptic negative message.
I’ve mostly avoided that sort of thinking, especially after spending several years on a gentle parenting board where we are expected to always assume positive intent with our children as well as with other mothers on the board, and am normally very adept at simply scrolling past most things that I find to be potentially offensive or divisive, but I’ve found that I sometimes get very defensive or even offended responses from my friends when I post something that has been helpful to me personally with parenting or living.
It’s even possible that this post will ruffle someone’s feathers somewhere, although I can’t imagine whose and it’s not intended in that way either… it’s just a helpful topic I have on my mind and that I wanted to share with anyone who reads this <3
So what are some examples of positive intent, as I see it?
Positive intent (as I see it) says that parents who make different decisions than you do are just doing the best they can with their unique situation and the information they have, even if you think you’d never make those decisions yourself. Positive intent says that those parents also have the best interest of their children in mind, even if you vehemently disagree with how they go about showing it.
Positive intent says that people who generalize about specific parties in politics and denigrate those who support them are just frustrated with the state of politics right now (aren’t we all?) and possibly lack the capacity to express their extreme frustration without also casting aspersions on everyone who supports the party they’re frustrated with. Positive intent also says that those aspersions are not about you or me, but rather tells you a bit more about the frustrations and beliefs of the person making them.
Positive intent says that people are trying their hardest and doing their best to live their lives in a difficult and fallen world, even if you look at them and think that they seem like abject failures by your own definition. Nobody is perfect and everyone falls short in one way or another. Some of us struggle more than others do and none of us have walked in anyone else’s shoes, figuratively speaking, so it really does behoove everyone to assign positive intent.
Positive intent says that we treat others the way that we would want to be treated by assuming that there’s a good explanation for behavior that we could easily take personally or poorly.
If I ever appear to be a jerk to someone then I want to know about it and have a chance to make things right. It only makes sense to me to give that chance to anyone who seems to be acting like a jerk to me. Maybe they thought I was a jerk first or maybe their mom just died or they just found out they have cancer or they simply woke up late and have been scrambling to catch up all day long… you’ll almost certainly never know for sure unless you assume the best and ask them nicely.
Positive intent says that it’s not all about us and that we should strive not to take things personally unless we have asked for clarification and the person clarifies that it is, specifically, about us.
Almost always though, there’s another explanation; one that doesn’t involve cryptic or indirect personal attacks because, really, who has time for that kind of thing?