George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Assuming Positive Intent

Buck the cultural trend of anger and incivility with a simple checklist that helps reframe your understanding about what other people actually want and need.

July 21, 2016

We're mad. We're really, really mad -- and according to an Esquire/NBC News survey, we're madder than we’ve been in a long time. It takes less than ten minutes on social media for it to become clear that we've got a short fuse and we're not afraid to light it.

Anger and Trust

What's causing all this publicly shared ire? It used to be unacceptable to go to the scary rage place, particularly in front of colleagues or friends. Doing so would ruin one's credibility. Now, due in part to the perceived anonymity of social media, we've reset the Overton Window on what is unacceptable -- and we’re hurting ourselves as a result, because all of this anger may actually change the way the brain functions, as well as the heart, immune system, blood pressure, and lungs. When we feel attacked, a part of our brain called the amygdala floods our body with chemicals that prepare us for a fight. Angry outbursts feel like attacks, so we respond defensively, which from the other side looks a lot like an attack. In healthy people, the prefrontal cortex keeps us from taking a swing at the guy next to us (or at the very least telling him exactly what we think of him and his opinion). Lately, however, that system seems to be breaking down. We're getting angrier while simultaneously feeling fewer inhibitions about taking that metaphorical or literal swing at the guy next to us.

So how do we stop it?

Years ago, I was part of a norm-setting conversation with a group from the School Reform Initiative. I'll admit that I was only about 75 percent tuned into what was going on, (probably because I was arguing with someone on Facebook), at least until I heard an unexpected contribution to our proposed expectations:

"Assume positive intent."

I was drawn up a bit short by every single word in that statement. First of all, we know that assumptions are generally a bad idea. Secondly, I had no idea where these people were coming from, geographically or pedagogically. How could I vouch for their level of positivity? Was I preemptively agreeing with everything that they might say? What if I wanted to push back? Was I giving up that right? How could I possibly know what they were intending? While I was pondering and not really paying attention, the group agreed to the norms, which meant I got to spend the next three days living, working, and grappling with that idea -- and I've continued to grapple with it in the years since.

Foundational Assumptions

I already knew that there was power in assumption, but I learned a lot about what happens when you insist on holding to positive intent, and I learned about how to get there. As part of her process called "The Work," Byron Katie suggests we ask four questions (PDF) which I found especially useful:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it's true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react or what happens when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

By taking a moment (and a pause and a deep breath) to simply ask myself, "Is it true that this person is out to do what I assume (destroy my school, demean my practice, dismiss my ideas)? Do I absolutely know that this is true? I mean, really, how do I know?", I had a chance to recognize what believing that thought did to me -- toxic energy and pain rather than a generative, creative push to do something new. The last question was the tough one: "Who would you be without that thought?" Put another way, what if the story that I'd been telling myself simply wasn't true? What if the foundational assumption that the other person was willfully trying to hurt or destroy simply wasn't true? What if the opposite were true instead, that this "other" was actually looking for the same solutions as I was, just via a different path? What if we were on actually on the same team?

That changed everything.

Assumption of positive intent is a choice to believe that, at our core, most people want the same things that we want for our students. It leaves room for not just a fair fight, but for civil disagreement. After all, there's nothing wrong with conflict. Conflict can provide fodder for deeper understanding. Healthy, generative anger can push us to make positive change. Things go sideways when we stop disagreeing about ideas and start disagreeing about our shared humanity. But the assumption of positive intent brings us to a place of connection, not division. It begins with the essential belief that we're on the same team. From that place, we can't help but try to pull in the same direction, to explore difference from a place of curiosity rather than hostility, to start from "we" rather than "you" or "I." Give it a try on social media or even face to face, and let us know what happens. (I’m assuming that things will go well, of course -- and so should you!)

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Mindfulness

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