It all started with a tweet by Tobias Mayer:
“Don’t make assumptions” says one school of wisdom, “Assume positive intent” says another. I choose the first. You?
I’m a card bearing member of the second tribe (at least I thought I was) so I answered:
The second one. Makes me kinder.
Going into difficult conversations assuming positive intent has rarely left me disappointed.
Or as Gitte Klitgaard so beautifully put it:
I find that I get what I expect. So if I expect good, I get good.
My experience is exactly the same. Whenever I don’t manage to assume positive intent and give in to blaming thoughts it leads to more disappointment. My beliefs always always leak into what I say and how I say it.
That’s why I ask someone else to facilitate / mediate in my place when I cannot honestly assume positive intent for each party.
The “don’t assume anything” school of thought has never helped me to prep angry people for constructive conversations. When someone thinks others to be malicious, countering their theories by saying “You don’t know that. Don’t just assume that” only helps for about 2 seconds:
They rake a hand through their hair and say “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know that for sure.” Pause for effect. “But I swear, they’re just doing that to fuck with us!” Aaaand, back to square one.
What did help multiple times is giving a couple of scenarios in which the enraging behaviour is a result of good helpful intentions of the other party and doesn’t manifest their evil and / or stupid nature.
Giving examples of how something might have had positive intent opens the door to really talk. I’ve established a possible alternate reality 🙂
What’s really going on is something we can try to find out during the facilitated conversation.
After I laid out these thoughts, Tobias remarked:
Talking “of how this might have had positive intent” is very different to making the assumption, isn’t it?
Huh? Hm, I guess that’s true. Apparently I fall inbetween the two schools of thought and my mindset when preparing to facilitate is “I assume that positive intent is possible (while not actually assuming any particular motive)”. And I can come up with at least 2 positive intent scenario for any given situation.
Learned something about myself there. It’s a mindset that has served me well so far. What’s your mindset for crucial conversations?
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