Assume Positive Intent (API) – Insights from Dr. Joe Utay
By Dr. Joe Utay, Co-Founder, Director of Counseling & Evaluations
We almost never truly know the real intent of a person’s comment. A complement could really be an attempt to manipulate. An insult may have been meant as a joke. One invitation is friendly while another is an obligation. Even a gesture or facial expression could be intended to be positive or neutral but assumed to be hurtful. So, you might as well assume positive intent when you really don’t know for sure the intent. Why? The mental and physical energy resulting from assuming positive intent will set you up to respond in a more healthy way, even if it turns out the intent was negative. It is both protective and practical – useful between us adults, between us and kids, and to encourage between kids. We can call it API for a short reminder for Assume Positive Intent.
A student just came in while I was writing this. In the middle of our session he took out his iPad and put on his headphones. I told him about what I was writing and that I could assume he’s bored and he said, “No, I like this. I just like to do a lot of things at once. I can still listen and talk and do this too.” I asked him for an example of the above concept at home and he said, “If my little brother is in a good mood and steals my Lego piece then I know he just wants to play. But, if I got him in trouble and he then stole a Lego piece then I know he did it on purpose to get back at me.
Does that make sense that he’d do that? “Yes, he got in big trouble from what I told mom, then it makes sense he’d try to get back at me.”
Does knowing that help you not get as mad? “No, it makes me more pumped up and we go back and forth until I finally say, ‘I don’t want to fight with you anymore’ and sometimes he agrees and we stop fighting.”
Will you catch it earlier as you grow up? “Yeah, I realize it’s not worth it and he’s just trying to get back at me, not being mean for no reason, so it’s easier to stop fighting.”
This is what I mean by Assume Positive Intent… What’s a kid way to say this? “Positive means plus and negative means minus. Be a plusser not a minusser. Don’t be a put down. Be a put up… Someone has to take a stand and say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. Can we shake on it?’”
What do think about us being good models of API? It’s so natural to assume negative intention based on our own personal histories. Also, probably it helped our ancestors survive 10,000 years ago. To assume danger and be wrong was fine, but to assume positive intent and be wrong could’ve been deadly. So those who assumed negative intent were more likely to survive. (Some of you know that Evolution Psychologists call this negativity bias.) But that was then and now is now. So, maybe we can help each other overcome decades (centuries?) of programming and learn to assume positive intent. Good for us. Good for the people we interact with.
When someone seems to be assuming negative intent, all we need to do is say “API” to help the other person at least consider the positive intent of the other person. What do you think about us helping each other and our students become better ‘plussers’?
P.S.- Of course, sometimes a person’s intent is indeed negative. But, again, we humans tend to jump faster than the speed of thought to assuming negative intent. THAT (negative) assuming is the assuming we’re all famously warned against doing, not positive assuming. The point here is that unless we know the intent with 100% certainty (beyond “well it’s obvious”), assuming positive or neutral intent helps us mentally and physically remain (or get ourselves back into) a state of mind-body equanimity conducive to responding wisely and helpfully to everyone involved. Easier said than done; that’s why we need each other’s help to practice this valuable skill.