When was the last time you went on an Internet rabbit trail? I hate to think how often I have. Generally I realize I’m far off my intended topic and have spent far more time than I would like to admit on this little trail. About a month ago, though, the trail led somewhere productive.
I can’t tell you how, but I ended up on the Center for Adaptive Schools posting of Norms for Collaboration. This one-page paper provides tips for improving team environments. The last point applies far more broadly than working in team environments and has had a great impact on my interactions with those around me.
Presume Positive Intentions
Norms of Collaboration suggests that when we assume other people’s intentions are good, we will engage in more meaningful discussion and avoid unintentional put-downs. By nature, I think I’m a fairly positive person. Yet I have all-too-frequent moments when I allow an attitude that “the world is out to get me” to motivate my interactions with others. I assume the worst instead of the best about others.
When we assume the worst about another person, we very often don’t stop with just our thoughts. Our words and actions will follow our thoughts, very often leading to a less satisfactory outcome. On the other hand, when we assume the best, our words and actions again follow our thoughts. The outcome of these interactions is often better than we would have expected.
As I began to use three words, presume positive intentions, to check my attitude, thoughts and responses, I began to notice a difference. Over the holidays I planned a family get-together. When the timing didn’t work out quite as I had hoped, I was ready to vent some of my anger and disappointment. Presume positive intentions popped in my mind and I began to wonder about the intentions of what I perceived to be the offending family member. I quickly realized she was doing her best to please multiple families during a very short visit. Instead of feeling angry that timing wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to, I began to appreciate the effort it was taking to please everyone as much as possible.
Changing a habit of thinking negatively to a habit of presuming positive intentions can be difficult. Habits by their very nature are words, thoughts and actions we don’t think about. They are patterns and routines that we’ve practiced for years. The good news is we don’t have to be stuck with poor habits. We can change and/or form new ones with a bit of work. Here are four suggestions for making presuming positive intentions a part of your regular thought pattern.
Create a Reminder
When I first read presume positive intentions it struck me as a great phrase and one I should take to heart. I decided to create a reoccurring reminder that would pop up every few days. Each time the reminder appeared, I would think, “Oh yeah, I need to remember to do that.” After perhaps three weeks of the reminder popping up periodically, I found myself thinking the phrase just when I needed it, without a reminder.
Difficult people are often difficult because their motivations and desires are in sharp contrast to our own. Praying for those we disagree with can shift our focus from points of conflict to seeking the best for
My husband regularly prays for our political leaders. Two politicians in particular regularly say and do things my husband does not agree with. Despite the continual disappointment and certainty that the country’s best interests are not being served by these two leaders, my husband has continued to pray. A week ago, he told me his attitude had changed from hoping they would experience God’s judgment to hoping they would know God’s glory and peace. The shift in my husband’s hope has filled him with joy and motivated him to keep praying. I find it curious that nothing has really changed about these two leaders. Their decisions are not more in line with what my husband would like to see. Yet, because of his prayers, my husband’s attitude toward the two has changed and he is experiencing greater joy.
Skip the Media
We all know bad news sells. Spending too much time listening to news feeds, reading newspapers or paying attention to certain talk radio programs can foster a habit of expecting the worst. By limiting our exposure to these inputs, we can avoid reinforcing constant negativity and presuming the worst.
Garbage in, garbage out simply means bad input will produce bad output. While the computer science industry coined this phrase, it also applies to our mind, heart and mouth. When circumstances get difficult, what tends to come out of us is what we have put in. One of the best ways to ensure what comes out is uplifting and edifying is to memorize scripture. Scripture itself directs us to do this. Colossians 3.16 tells us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Deuteronomy 6.6-8 reminds us that God’s word is to be in our hearts and a part of our every action.
When we presume other people’s intentions are positive, we may periodically get it wrong. I would hazard a guess, though, that we get it wrong far more often when we presume the intentions of others are negative.
The motivations of people around the world are surprisingly similar. We all want our basic needs for shelter, food and clothing met, an opportunity to provide for our families and better lives for our children. When we presume positive intentions about others, we treat them with dignity and open the space for improved interactions.
How has presuming positive intentions about another person improved your interactions with them?
Please share with us in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.
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