Many years ago at a previous job, I was put through several rounds of “sensitivity training” with my colleagues due to internal personality conflicts and petty strife. It was a very frustrating and mostly useless process, but I did take away one valuable thing: The phrase “assume positive intent.” Since this phrase and the idea behind it have become central to my life philosophy, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I learned them during these otherwise fruitless sessions. But hey, get your wisdom wherever you can, right?
The core of the idea is that human beings are not inherently malicious, conniving creatures and that most of our ideas and actions are well-intentioned. Even many of the ones that SEEM spiteful and rude are often driven by positively-fueled emotions like concern, compassion, and curiosity. Obviously, some people are just assholes. And some non-assholes occasionally make asshole moves. But to me, “assume positive intent” doesn’t mean, “Be a naive fool who trusts everyone to be filled with Mother Teresa-level compassion.” It means, “Try to examine sentiments and actions from multiple perspectives before allowing yourself to feel hurt or offended.”
I knew a guy in college whose face was so scarred from acne that it looked red, swollen, and painful at all times. People would stop him and offer ideas for how to deal with his acne. On the street, at the grocery store, wandering around campus. And his acne was absolutely none of their business, and it was completely inappropriate for them to think that stopping a stranger to discuss a highly personal issue was remotely acceptable. BUT. What they wanted was to help him, ease his (assumed) suffering, make his life better. They weren’t the right people to do that and their methods were embarrassing and insulting, but the intent? Positive.
One of my girlfriends has full tattooed sleeves, and boy does she get the third degree about them. Everyone from kids to oldsters proffers commentary, often along the lines of, “Why did you do that to yourself? You’re limiting your career choices, and some people won’t respect you because of those godawful tattoos.” And, again, none of their business, completely inappropriate to comment. COMPLETELY. Especially as tattoos are permanent so lamenting their presence on a person can sound a lot like, “Damn, you made some terrible choices, doll. Way to go.” But once again, most of these folks are feeling some measure of anxiety and concern for my friend. They may be especially worried as copious visible tattoos on women are still a relatively new phenomenon, and they want to shield her from judgment. These nosy parkers are irritating and overbearing, but there are germs of real, human positivity fueling their unwelcome rants.
Are there people who use the facade of positive intent to mask feelings of superiority? Oh, yes. Especially when it comes to matters of appearance. A (different) guy I knew in college once told me that I’d be so much prettier if I “just put on some makeup and a skirt once in a while.” Awful, right? Seemingly a play to assert his own coolness. And yet, examining his choice through the lens of positive intent is still beneficial, at least in the aftermath. The guy was a total loser, no question, and he said something he knew would hurt me. But some part of him believed that he was doing it for my own good, to help me, to steer me in the “right” direction. He knew nothing about me, it was not his place to decide what was best for me, and by being so blunt and rude he lost any chance of convincing me he was right. At the time, I was devastated and felt real hatred for him. It tore me up inside, and I spent weeks feeling ashamed and angry. But faced with the same situation today, I hope I could be more dispassionate. I could say to myself, “This person is making a lot of assumptions about me and voicing his opinions in an invasive way. On some level, he thinks he’s helping me. I’ll avoid him from now on, but it’s not worth my energy to worry about his statements or bother with hating him.”
Assuming positive intent helps me to feel simultaneously more detached from and invested in humanity. I still get rankled, but I’m often able to find the under-layers of goodness in words and incidents that rankle me, which helps me to un-rankle a lot faster. And seeing that positivity all around me makes me more patient and kind with my fellow human beings. It feels good to know that people may bungle the hows, but the whys are quite often fueled by an earnest desire to keep others happy and safe.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes people are cruel, sometimes the hurt is too overwhelming and trying to squeeze some form of kindness from that cruelty is just impossible. But I highly recommend assumptions of positive intent whenever possible. Forcing yourself to believe the best about people allows them to show you their best more often.
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