Assume Positive Intent

Anyone who is familiar with NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) has probably heard the phrase, “assume positive intent.” It comes from NLP and has its basis in the idea that while our actions to others may seem rude, offensive or otherwise distasteful, often we are unaware that we are doing something that hurts. We may not have learned better coping or communication skills, so essentially we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. It also encompasses the idea that I may not intend harm, but rather I know no other way to protect myself or get my needs met.

This doesn’t mean that in every situation a person does intend something positive – after all, there are people who do intend harm – but it does mean that we want to adopt an attitude of “assume positive intent until proved otherwise.”

This concept was brought home to me recently while dealing with a situation with my neighbor. She had always been very friendly to me and talkative. A few weeks ago, I noticed she would walk by without speaking, and not return my wave when I saw her in her car. I honestly assumed something was going on in her life because I couldn’t imagine why she would be upset with me – we barely interact.

Last evening I was walking one of my dogs and she was standing on her doorstep. I waved to her and she yelled, “You aren’t letting him pee on my bush, are you?” I was stunned and looked down, and sure enough the dog was peeing on the bush. I uttered the word, “I…..” and she slammed the door on me. Wow – I was so happy to learn why she had been so upset with me. But I didn’t even know that someone could be mad about pee on a bush. The truth is that I’m not a gardener by any stretch of imagination. Growing up we had dogs AND my mom was a gardener, so I never knew it was an offensive thing.

I’ve since gone online and read several postings about how rude those of us who don’t know this is “wrong” are to others. This is what made me think about positive intent. I genuinely did not know this was offensive, or rude or un-neighborly! Now that I do, I will ensure that my dogs never, ever go to the bathroom on anyone’s bushes but rather that they are steered to telephone poles and hydrants! If only my neighbor had assumed positive intent and said to me, “I don’t know if you realize this, but seeing your dog pee on my expensive bush makes me very angry. Please take him somewhere else.” I would’ve been embarrassed that I had upset her and immediately moved my dog.

How many times during the day do we assume that someone is doing something just to harm us? Or that they are “rude” because they don’t understand what we need? How often do we label them as “difficult people” as a result? I’m always reminded of the scenario that Stephen Covey described about the father and the unruly kids on the public train. People were getting increasingly irritated by the children and their out-of-control behavior, while the father just sat with his head down. When someone finally spoke up and chastised him, he apologized and said, “I’m sorry – I guess I didn’t notice them. We buried their mother a few moments ago and we’re all a little out of sorts.” Try to remember that story the next time someone bugs you. We have a right to ask someone to stop doing something bothersome, or to express our wishes. My neighbor is perfectly within her right to want her bushes left untouched by my dogs. It just might be more productive to talk to me instead of giving me the silent treatment and slamming doors. Some of us – me included – have never learned mind reading!!