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day 72: assume positive intent

April 14, 2011

On Day 72, something got me thinking about the sage advice, “Assume positive intent.”

Perhaps it was the greeting of another preschool mother at yesterday’s spring program (“Oh, good!  I see you have finally made it to one of your kids’ performances!”) that got me thinking.  Maybe it was a stranger’s comment (compliment?) later that morning (“You have that, you know, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ look”).

I swear, I was wearing neither a pinafore nor a bonnet when I received yesterday's comment.

While I’m not sure what got me thinking about this advice yesterday, what I do know is that years ago, someone way smarter than I advised me that life is brighter when we consider that others want to do good.  When I remember to adopt this stance, I’m a far happier human.

In a 2008 article from Fortune magazine, an array of superstars from business to politics to entertainment were asked to share the best advice they had ever received.  Indra Nooyi, chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, named  “Assume positive intent” for these reasons:

“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.'”

I need to repeat that to myself at least four times:  Maybe they are saying something to me that I am not hearing.

So, when I assume positive intent, yesterday’s preschool greeting transforms from, “Wow, you actually showed up for once!” into, “I’m so glad to see you — wasn’t it too bad that the holiday program was snowed out?”  And “You have that ‘Little House on the Prairie’ look” becomes, “You look so… wholesome” (just guessing on that one, folks).  Assuming that people want to do good, most importantly, shifts how a message is received.  It demands of the recipient a deeper level of inquiry and a foundation of understanding.

At the end of Day 72, having considered the idea of assuming positive intent all day, I thought about my friend Jaime.  She and I met in fourth grade and, in spite of my family’s out of state move three years later, have remained friends ever since (thank you, internet).  Jaime remains one of the most positive, vivacious people I know.  Regardless of circumstance, she maintains a core of light that doesn’t fade.  In everything she does, she embodies the art of assuming positive intent.

My gift on Day 72 is a series of photos of Jaime and me playing “makeover” at age ten or eleven (my adoration for beauty products started early, I guess).  My favorite is a “Before” picture of her, in which she sports clownlike red lipstick smeared down her chin and a teased bouffant.  The pictures are ridiculous and sweet.  I know when she receives them Jaime will recognize my intention to make her laugh, just as we lived to entertain each other so many years ago.

Today, I’m going to try to ignore all the noise and listen for meaning.  I hope you have a chance to do the same, and thanks for showing up.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy permalink
    April 14, 2011 9:06 am

    When I saw the title of this blog post I was a bit confused (“hey, I’ve heard THAT a few times before . . .”). “Assume positive intent” isn’t just one of Indra’s favorite pieces of advice, it’s actually wound into everyday life at PepsiCo.

    • April 14, 2011 8:59 pm

      that is so great. i actually googled the phrase while writing my post to see if anyone was responsible for coining it. her name and philosophy came up over and over. i don’t know much about big business, but “assume positive intent” seems like a pretty nice way to run a company.

  2. April 14, 2011 7:16 pm

    …this keeps getting better and better everyday.

    “assume positive intent” is definitely practical advice to live by…

  3. Lucy Falk permalink
    April 15, 2011 7:51 am

    I needed that post – perfect timing for me 🙂

  4. Chris S permalink
    April 15, 2011 2:11 pm

    I agree. “Assume positive intent” is very good advice. Our reactions influence how things take shape regardless of their original intent. If you react from an assumption of positive intent, there’s a good chance your right and if you’re not there’s a good chance you can steer the outcome that direction anyway… but like every other bit of advice, not 100 percent of the time. We are human and sometimes negative intent deserves to be identified and confronted.

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