The Problem With Assuming Positive Intent
Assuming everyone has the best intentions is a complicated matter for people of color
For four years, Kathy has been my most problematic neighbor. I live in an apartment building in a large city, and I am not exaggerating when I say that every person in the building tries to accommodate her. No one uses the communal laundry room on “her” day. We try to keep our cats quiet in case the noise sets her off.
Kathy, however, doesn’t seem to give much thought to respecting our boundaries. She and her family have loud arguments on the daily—profanity-laced bouts that can occur at any time of day or night. Despite her own apparent sensitivity to sound — she once asked me not to vacuum after she gets home from work — Kathy recently responded explosively to my request to be “mindful of noise” on a day when I had to record interviews for a story.
The ensuing conflict upset me enough to send me venting to another neighbor, who was no stranger to Kathy’s ire. But when I finished blowing off steam and asked this neighbor for advice on how to proceed, she told me to assume positive intent on Kathy’s part.
Former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi is credited with popularizing the phrase “assume positive intent,” a form of empathetic listening that can prevent situations from negatively escalating. The concept is simple: When someone lets you down, instead of lashing out angrily, assume their actions were driven by good intentions. Your employee blew a deadline, but maybe it’s because they didn’t fully understand your directive. Your friend canceled at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean she’s a flake; maybe she really did have a fight with her husband like she texted you. Whatever the actual reason, you’ll never find it out if you open with anger. “If you react from a negative perspective,” Nooyi wrote in a 2008 article for Fortune, “then it just becomes two negatives fighting each other.”
Since then, assuming positive intent has moved beyond corporate culture into a heuristic for navigating tricky interpersonal situations. My friend, who was introduced to the positive-intent doctrine in a parenting class that predates Nooyi’s article, says it shaped her thinking on how to relate to her children. It has also been…