Assuming Positive Intent

To me one of the most important things we can do as human beings is to assume positive intent from the person we’re working with or talking to. What that means is that even if you say or do something I disagree with, I assume your intention in saying or doing it was to create some kind of positive outcome. By doing this I can look at another person’s action or words and think, “Okay, why would Jane think that was the right thing to do?” even though I might think it’s completely wrong. Rather than take it as an assault or an insult, I view it as a step towards some kind of (eventually) positive outcome.

One of the most maddening things about human beings is that we tend to see everything in black or white, right or wrong, us versus them. It’s maddening because it instantly divides us and it makes us predictable and easy to manipulate. It also prevents us from solving our society’s hard problems which all live in the gray areas, the ambiguous territory between what’s obviously right or wrong, the responsibility of not me, or you, but both of us.

All of this is nothing new – people have been like this since the dawn of time – but now we get to see these tendencies on full display on a daily basis through peoples’ new forms of interaction, namely social media. Not to put too much import on Facebook or Twitter, they are simply a new way for people to express the feelings they’ve had all along, but in the past we were limited to hearing the opinions of those we actually shared a physical space with or the limited number of people who wrote for a newspaper or broadcast on radio or TV. Now we can see or hear the opinions of people we might see in person once a decade, and their friends, and those drips of sharing turn into a flood of opinions.

Unfortunately, most people either don’t have the time or the ability to formulate nuanced or well thought out positions on the issues of the day and so they default to sharing some quote or visual that represents their opinion and helps identify them as being in the pro-this camp or con-that camp. Then they get a thumbs up from those who think like them or maybe a visceral “eff you” from someone who sees things differently.

It would be easy to dismiss this as silliness, as just people spouting off on stupid platforms intended to waste time at work, but I think that would be a mistake. When you have serious social issues like the police protests going on, any medium that is potentially contributing to the division in our society should be taken seriously. So the question becomes, are our social media channels contributing to a widening divide in our country?

Short answer: maybe, but they don’t have to. Let’s return to my original statement about assuming positive intent. Take any of the things you see on Facebook – or whatever your social media platform of choice is – that you disagree with and think to yourself, “They must be saying or sharing that because they believe something good will result. What is it?” By doing that you avoid thinking, “Man, Jon’s a moron for saying that and I know that because I’m right and he’s wrong.” The moment you pass judgment is the moment you begin to close your eyes, your windows to the world, to the possibility that there’s an alternative view you may not have considered.

Of course some people don’t have positive intent. In fact there are plenty of people who would like nothing more than to take advantage of any given situation, but you can rest assured that they will reveal themselves very quickly. You have nothing to lose by assuming positive intent and then reacting accordingly if you find otherwise, but if you don’t assume positive intent then you will never have the opportunity to learn from those who think differently than you. Remember, different doesn’t have to be wrong or right, it’s just different.

So folks, please as a favor to me, when you’re getting all hot and bothered about an issue please remember to do yourself and our society a favor – assume positive intent until proven otherwise.

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