You’re frustrated. You want to improve your relationships and reduce your dissatisfaction level, and so you try to fix the people who are making you frustrated. Spoiler alert: it’s not going to work. The change you need is in your own head. Change your perspective by presuming positive intent. You can be a better leader and improve your life in general by changing that one assumption.
Here are a few examples:
- Your client doesn’t call you back as promised and you assume this means they don’t value your time.
- Your colleague loses a customer and you can see from this that they don’t care.
- Your friend does not join in a group gift and this demonstrates to you how stingy they are.
- Your sister cancels a walk with you and you conclude that she takes you for granted.
Does this sound familiar?
Now imagine that all those people are doing the very best they can. What changes?
“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” – Dr. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead
Yes, here I am, a mediator encouraging people to assume! How unusual!
In what might seem like a contradiction, in order to assume positive intent Dr Brown adds two concepts together: the foundational skill of setting clear boundaries plus the foundational belief that people are doing the best they can.
Dr Brown concluded from her research that the most compassionate people she had interviewed were the most boundaried because we tend to assume bad intentions when others do not respect our boundaries.
We need to set clear boundaries and then be kind, according to Seth Godin. In his words, kindness “scales better than competitiveness, frustration, pettiness, regret, revenge, merit (whatever that means) or apathy. Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness. It can create trust and openness and truth and enthusiasm and patience and possibility.”
If I assume that my staff are doing the best they can, then I stop focusing on what I think the staff should accomplish. Instead I focus on who the individuals actually are and hold them accountable for what they are doing. I take responsibility to teach my staff, provide the training they need, reassign them, or let them go, and I do not continue to grind away on issues based on my list of “shoulds”.
There is risk in assuming positive intent. The risk helps to build a culture of trust because acting in a way that is worthy of trust invites people to trust.
The presumption of positive intent is an approach which has served me well as a mediator. A loss of trust is common when there is conflict. Often during mediation, I find myself helping people work towards building future trust as they navigate the resolution of their conflict.
The assumption of positive intent can also be applied to ourselves.
In these days of piled-on stress, when we feel overwhelmed we might also find the strength to be kind and make the same positive assumption about ourselves.
“I’m doing the best I can right now!”
Struggling with conflict?
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