James was anxious.
Jenny hadn’t said anything about the report he’d submitted two days earlier until the meeting that morning when she’d described it as a ‘good starting point’ in front of the team.
What did that even mean?
James assumed the worst. Obviously, Jenny didn’t like it. Actually, she probably thought it was terrible. And that he’s incompetent. It’s clear Jenny doesn’t like him, otherwise she wouldn’t have tried to make him look bad in public…
And so the spiral begins…
Sound familiar? This type of scenario, where we assume negative intent, is one I see play out frequently in professional and personal relationships.
We have a negative bias as humans and many of us tend to be overthinkers. When we overthink, we can get it wrong. We make assumptions about the intention behind someone’s communication or behaviour and most of the time, just like James, we jump straight to the worst case:
They don’t like me.
They were having a go.
They’re trying to undermine me.
They didn’t reply to my email because they thought my report was terrible.
Things can escalate quickly from here.
Some of us will bottle our thoughts up, telling ourselves stories that become so real that we create an issue where maybe none even existed. We are so convinced someone doesn’t like us that we become anxious about being around them. Meanwhile, that person is totally oblivious to the fact there is even an ‘issue’.
Or, we can go the other way and react defensively to the perceived threat, becoming aggressive and abrupt when someone asks a simple question or makes a statement that we’re sure has an underlying meaning. Our assumption is ‘they’re out to get us’ so we go on the attack and conversations quickly escalate to arguments.
Today, I want to share with you a simple but powerful strategy that can be an absolute gamechanger for your communication, your relationships and the way you react to others:
Assume positive intent.
Maybe Jenny was under the pump and didn’t have a chance to respond to James’ email. Perhaps she was genuinely pleased with his report and was relieved to have a good starting point for addressing a big challenge.
That story could be just as true as the first one.
Sure, some people’s intent might be negative, but it’s far less common than you think. Most people are simply doing their best, just like you, and they have bad days too. It doesn’t necessarily mean more than that.
If you’re not sure – ask! Ask questions to clarify what someone meant, rather than stewing on it. Get curious, find out if there really is an issue, and go from there.
Practice assuming positive intent at work and at home for the next week and see how it changes your response.
I’d love to hear how you go.
Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator, mentor and author of the book Soft is the New Hard: How to Communicate Effectively Under Pressure.