03.15.2017 | Colleen Moffitt
We’ve all heard the saying, “To assume is to make an ass out of U and me.” The reality is that our assumptions can be powerful. That power can be positive or negative, and can drive you toward your objectives and goals or hold you back.
It is easy to fall in the trap of thinking about what someone else could have done, should have done, how poorly they handled something, how disrespectful they acted, and more, by focusing on negative criticism of their action or lack thereof. I can hear my mom’s words telling me, “Don’t give them so much power.” She was right. Focusing my energy on being critical and assuming a negative intent had the power to put me in a bad mood, distract me from my objectives, and frame my attention on things that were not productive.
A more productive approach (professionally and personally) is to assume positive intent. Kit Copper articulates in the post “Assuming Positive Intent: The Ultimate Productivity Driver” that “once we evolve to understanding the folly of this mindset, we feel freer and we become more productive professionally due to the minimization of unhelpful, distracting thoughts.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsico, articulated the power of assuming positive intent in a 2008 Fortune article “The Best Advice I Ever Got.”
She wrote, “When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. … You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’”
Ultimately, where we focus our attention will drive our behavior and energy, as well as dictate results. If someone chooses to focus on the negative, we pay more attention to the problems and spend less focus on the solutions. Our attention frames our responses.
A Harvard Business Review article by Caroline Webb, “Change Your Intention to Focus Your Attention,” offers four steps how on to be more deliberate in your attention and to decide on positive intention.
Below is an excerpt from Webb’s article:
- Check in with yourself. Ask yourself what’s top of mind for you right now? What are your expectations about the situation and the people you’re working with? What needs or concerns do you have? What’s your mood?
- Recognize your filters. Given what is top of mind for you, make two quick lists. What information or behavior will you be paying most attention to, because it fits with what is top of mind for you? What information and behavior could you potentially miss, because it goes against your current state of mind.
- Decide on Positive Intention. Identify what matters most to you. If you’re coming up with anything a little snarky or self-righteous, try to reframe generously. For example, perhaps it’s really more important to improve your connection with a colleague rather than making sure the colleague understands they did something wrong.
- Direct Your Attention. Given your positive intention and your lists, what do you now pay more attention to – in others, in yourself, or in the task at hand?
It can be challenging in the moment to not react in a snarky manner in response to another person’s behavior or upon receiving feedback or a suggestion. However, how you decide to react, what you assume in their intent and where you place focus can make a significant difference in your relationships, how you are perceived, in what you learn and ultimately in your success.