Assuming Intention, Part 2

I previously explored the concept of Assuming Intention, a technique that more often than not does not turn out to be accurate. It’s difficult to know someone so precisely that we know without fail what they are thinking, and what their actions meant. This is a form of what Milton H. Erickson called “mind reading”, and generally robs us of the richness of our relationships’ interactions.

There is an exception to the rule, as explored in Part I, assuming a positive intention. That is, if a person’s actions appear ambiguous to us, and we don’t know what was meant, we can assume a positive intention (API), even in the lack of evidence, just as we can assume a negative intention (ANI). In everyday language, we may call this giving the “benefit of the doubt.”.

Hold on! We talked previously about how Erickson’s “mind reading” is a bad thing, why are we now saying that it might be otherwise? In NLP, we learn and teach that beliefs are exceptionally useful tools. We can use them in our daily lives to enable ourselves, prop up a struggling will, equip us to grow beyond where we think we are, and more. The irony is that beliefs themselves, in order to be all those things and more, need not even be “true”. Consider a very basic belief: I can do this. You haven’t, we assume, finished doing it, or you wouldn’t need the belief. Beliefs, after all, exist in the absence of facts. If you already know you can do it because you have just completed “it”, then there is no need for belief – the results speak for themselves.

But where you have not YET completed the task, technically you don’t actually KNOW you can do it, you only either believe you can or believe you can’t. The fun part there is that the belief itself contains powerful creative energy. With a belief that you CAN, that energy may very well be the key you previously lacked. You can be trained expertly to perform the task, have every confidence in your abilities, but if you decide to embrace a believe that you CAN’T, you might be surprised at how quickly the belief can invade all that confidence, the training, the skill, and bore through it like termites through a tree.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If you instead choose a belief that you CAN, that energy can permeate every fiber of your confidence, your attitude, abilities, coalescing your skill into an unstoppable force that the world cannot resist. Ok, sounds a little better, but what does this have to do with assuming intention, whether positive (API) or negative (ANI)?

Simple, the assumption shared by each of those acronyms is itself derived from a belief, You might argue that in fact it IS a belief.

Think of it this way – what if, regardless of what your partner just did, you assumed a malicious or negative intention? What if, every time he or she did something nice for you, you presumed it was because they had some bad news to break, something to confess, and they were only trying to manipulate you, to lessen your angry response? Seriously, think about it. Now what if on an entirely different day you chose to respond differently? What if no matter how irritating or offensive your partner had behaved toward you, you assumed a positive or loving intention? It’s not so far-fetched – haven’t we all, at some time, had the very best of intentions, and yet our actions just didn’t match up to that intent? Of course we have! And your partner is no different. So it’s entirely possible that he or she meant well, truly was acting out of love or consideration, and they were unsuccessful in their “finish”. Would you likely view those two scenarios a bit differently? Wouldn’t anyone?

Understanding, of course, that any time we assume anything, we leave room to be wrong. It’s clear that we won’t just perfectly gauge or calibrate  someone’s intention. Maybe every now and then, maybe even frequently, but all the time? Not likely. So if that’s true, what’s the point? Wouldn’t Assuming Positive Intention (API) be just as bad as Assuming Negative Intention (ANI)?

The answer to that question lies more in the function than in the facts. That is, if we can agree to suspend “truth” and “verifiability” for just a moment, we might explore something in a somewhat different way. Okay. Got that pesky “true/false” criterion paused for a moment? Great! Now ask yourself a different question – what behavioral flexibility will the assumption likely lend you?

Our suggestion here is that if you assume the best, you will often be right. Sure, you will at times be wrong as well. But we’re more interested in the effect the belief has upon you. What are you able to do with the belief? What does the belief encourage you to do?

One answer to these questions is so obvious that you might find yourself feeling silly for not having considered it. If you haven’t felt silly before, rest assured, you will. Life gives each of us learning experiences that at first make us feel silly. The trick is to laugh along with everyone else, get over it, and take the learning with you.

What answer? When we assume the best, and are primed and ready for it, we create a feeling of acceptance for the other person. We invite them to be themselves and to share, because we ourselves have laid out the proverbial red carpet for them. We are assuming their positive intention and are ready to reciprocate with our own positive intention. This often works with strangers – just imagine how well it will work with someone who loves you and has committed to being with you!

So API with your significant other, filter their response through your positive energy, your love, your respect, your high regard for them. Bathe them in an overwhelming aura of love and acceptance, make them feel so loved they can’t help but smile. It might sound funny now, but consider the likely outcome of the opposite – ANI. If instead you bathe your partner in negative energy, disdain, contempt, jealousy, anger, whatever form your negative intentions have taken in the past, how do you think that will affect them? Most of us don’t enjoy receiving those emotions, particularly from someone we love, trust, and count on to be our friend. In our experience, assuming negative intention poisons whatever good you had going, destroying it from within.

And if it does make you feel just a bit silly, isn’t that a pretty small sacrifice to make for the one you love?

Copyright © 2019 Chris Gingolph

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