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Assuming Positive Intent: A Key Component of Collaboration

Participating in an office brainstorming activity and working with difficult customers are two different but common activities in which interpersonal communication is vital for success. Without fail, however, misunderstandings and other factors lead to disagreements, bad feelings and undesirable outcomes. Often, these disagreements are born out of the feeling that one of the involved parties is not acting in good faith, that they are placing their own interests above an appropriate outcome for all parties.

Too often when presented with a disagreeable situation we assume negative intent - our coworker is shooting down our ideas because he doesn't value our opinion or wants to impress the boss, customers are being difficult or intentional deceitful because they are not honest. Approaching these situations with positive intent opens up a whole new world as we begin to look for the reason behind other's behavior rather than going directly to frustration or anger. Assuming positive intent allows us to begin listening in attempt to understand other perspectives instead of entering into distrust and disagreement. In the workplace we begin to assume that our coworkers have the organization's best interest in mind even if their actions seems otherwise. We recognize that there are many factors affecting their behavior other than those that we immediately perceive.

This notion of "positive intent" has roots in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a model of human behavior, learning and communication that is practiced every day by every living being. Roger Dilts, NLP expert, states, "All behavior serves (or at one time served) a positive purpose." In essence, an individual’s positive intent allows them to justify their actions and behavior, at least internally. However, this does not always mean individuals are acting unselfishly. Dilts adds, "The fact that others are positively intended does not automatically make them wise or capable of being altruistic - these are the result of intelligence, skill and their map of the world. " Adopting the mindset of positive intent does not mean that we should be blindly optimistic or that we give others a free pass for their behavior, nor does it make us vulnerable to being mislead; quite the opposite if we are also committed to open dialogue and accountability.

Organizations and teams can benefit by working to establish a culture of positive intent. Project kickoffs are a great opportunity to set the expectation that everyone will work and collaborate with positive intent, that the goals of the group supersede those of any individual and that everyone is accountable to these aspirations. This public acknowledgement effects not only the way in which communication is received but also group behavior in general, as team members are inclined to be more aware of the motivations behind and the power of their words and actions. Combined with an environment that encourages and values honest dialogue and open feedback, positive intent can be a powerful tool that helps deliver exceptional and sustained results.

"Adopting the mindset of positive intent does not mean that we should give others a free pass for their behavior."

In the cases of a brainstorming session or working with customers to find solutions to complex problems, assuming positive intent will deescalate potential confrontations. It allows individuals or the group to focus on and see the situation from different perspectives, raising the capacity for problem solving.

Individuals, teams and organizations each have entrenched personalities and modus operandi so it often takes a deliberate shift of thought and behavior to implement positive intent in a genuine manner. Making this shift will benefit your work in addition to your attitude and relationships, both in and out of the workplace.

To implement positive intent in your work and life, try to adopt the following steps when confronted with a difficult situation:

1) Take a breath to center yourself.

2) Assume that others are not deliberately trying to be difficult or mess things up.

3) Consider the positive intent of their words or actions - as well as your own.

4) Acknowledge the facts of the situation.

5) Develop a strategy for communication and how to move forward.

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