In the last few years, I’ve been training myself in having a more open and compassionate heart.
At the core of these trainings has been mindfulness, taking the form of breathing meditation. In the last year, I’ve honed in on some of my old thought patterns, patterns that lead to judgment, frustration, and general suffering, and adopted the cognitive behavioral therapy exercises from the book Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman.
The first thought pattern I worked on was training myself to “assume positive intent.” At times, when things don’t go how I want or expect, I automatically assume a negative intention from another person—”they knew this would hurt me” or “they hurt me on purpose.” This assumption led to me feeling angry, victimized, and powerless to improve the situation—for if they had hurt me on purpose, they certainly wouldn’t be receptive to my requests to change.
Assuming positive intent turns that on its head. We train ourselves to believe that others hold the best possible intentions such that when we face “adversities”—when things don’t go exactly how we wanted them to—we choose to believe that they’re just suffering, or confused, or acting out their conditioning, not deliberately trying to hurt us. This leads us to not suffer from anger or feel victimized, and empowers us to engage fully in changing the situation (if they care and had good intentions, they should be receptive to our thoughts, even if they don’t ultimately do what we want).
The ABCs of assuming positive intent:
A. Adversity. Identify and name the “adversity.”
B. Beliefs. Free-write negative beliefs you have about the situation.
C. Consequence. Write down how you are left feeling about the interaction. For me, this usually includes anger, rage, and resignation or discouragement.
D. Disputation. Answer these questions:
>> What if they don’t know how it (the adversity) affects me?
>> Would they want to know? Would they care?
>> Could they be trying to find solutions, like me, but in a different way?
>> Is it possible they are right, competent, know what they are doing, and still aren’t doing what I want?
>> Could they mean well, respect me, and have positive intent with their actions?
E. Effect. Write down how you feel after the disputation exercise. Generally, I feel calmer, more grounded, and more positively toward the person.
A note to keep in mind for disputation: I stick with a question until I imagine a “yes” answer I could believe even a tiny bit. For example, I might say to myself, “The player who fouled me on the soccer field might want me to feel challenged, and so she’s playing her hardest to help me enjoy the game more and become the best player that I can.” The goal in this is not necessarily to be accurate, but to feel some spark of connection and goodwill.
The way I have worked this into my life was by brainstorming scenarios in which I am more likely to assume negative intent. For me, this list included playing soccer, dating, listening to people in positions of authority, and engaging in political discussions on social media. I set out to do this for 20 minutes per scenario, ideally five times a week.
In general, I notice I more often assume that people meant well. I notice I’m encouraging friends who are frustrated with other people to consider whether they might be assuming negative intent and to open up their perspective more. On this note, I notice I’m more frequently acknowledging that I can’t know another’s intentions or motivations, so it’s unfair to jump to negative conclusions.
I notice I am more likely to ask for a change. Assuming others care and aren’t acting from a place of ill will means that I can assume they will be receptive and respectful if I acknowledge something is painful to me and ask them to act differently in the future.
I notice I let things go more quickly and easily. In soccer games, I still get irritated at a foul or what I perceive as an unfair call, but instead of staying irritated and complaining about it for the rest of the game, I forget about it and keep playing.
I notice I’m more likely to protest. Assuming others didn’t mean to cause pain means they might not know they’ve caused pain, so it’s appropriate to point it out to them.
Repeating this exercise was truly effective in changing my perspective. While I found myself to be most stubborn about assuming this view in the dating realm, things really have shifted in all areas. I encourage you to try to assume positive intent in your own life, and see how it affects your empathy and compassion for others.
Author: Danielle Ford
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis