Reality Check: Presuming Good Intent

If you’re going to make an assumption about someone, it’s more helpful to assume that they have good intent rather than bad.

What do you think of that?

Let’s eliminate the situations where the assumption of good intent is obviously foolhardy. A sketchy-looking character skulks up behind you while you’re at the ATM; maybe their intent is not to be helpful. But in everyday situations, is life more satisfying when we presume good intent rather than evil?

For example, I have choices in how to perceive a classroom filled with new faces. I could perceive the group as interesting people who are eager to learn. They are full of potential; perhaps I can help to uncover it! They could even have valuable insights for me—insights that will ultimately help me improve and reach my own goals.

Those could be my starting assumptions with any new group.

Or, I could start with different assumptions. I might presume that these are folks who don’t really want to be here. They have likely been forced to come, perhaps to satisfy some artificial requirement. They probably don’t want to learn and they’ll try to avoid work whenever possible.

Which is the reality? Probably a little of both.

Which presumption is more effective for me to adopt?

From experience, I know it’s more effective to expect and anticipate that everybody is on board. I presume that they will rise to the expectations I set for them. Even if they don’t start with my preferred attitude, they could end up with it! They may even surprise themselves.

If you’ve been reading these columns, you knew I’d choose that direction though, didn’t you? In this scenario, the effective choice seems pretty obvious. And while it’s sometimes hard to maintain that outlook, even a less-than-perfect presumption of good intent is more helpful than choosing the opposite.

Now let’s take this to a larger context. People disagree about all kinds of things. Politics, religion, even the weather. Those disagreements can get pretty intense. Family relationships, friendships, work connections can all shatter because of such disagreements.

Everyone does not perceive “what’s best” in the same way. We get information from different sources, we absorb that information through our filters, and we form our perceptions. So two people could observe the same action and draw completely different conclusions.

Even if our goals, whether for ourselves, our families, our communities, country, or the whole dang earth are similar, different people intensely disagree about how to achieve them.

We don’t all have to agree to be able to get along.

However, it’s a lot easier to get along if we avoid starting with the presumption that the other is filled with bad intent. After we’ve labeled the other as evil, hateful, racist, privileged, bigoted, lazy, stupid, or whatever-phobic, then it’s kind of hard to hear and understand their point of view, isn’t it?

A presumption of positive intent isn’t going to solve all our disagreements. However, choosing genuine positive intent could help us better hear and understand what the disagreement really is.

What do you think?

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