Assuming Good Intentions

With all the stuff going on around the world over the last year, maintaining some degree of mental stability can be quite a challenge. Speaking only for myself, while my family and I have been fine through all this, the changes to my situation, while mostly benign, have still had their challenges. Again, speaking only for myself, I’ve found those challenges do lead to negativity on my part. Further, that negativity can bleed into my communication with others, hurting that communication.

I have seen others suffering from this as well. Whatever stresses they’re going through clearly leads to negativity in their communications. Now, when we’re looking at this situation, I’m negative, someone else is negative, we’re going to communicate really poorly.

So, how to address this?

Well, there are a ton of tools I can use to try to get my communication better. Conversely, there are tools I can use to be more understanding of others communication. Let’s start there. The single most important thing you can do to improve communication with others, especially when we’re talking about important conversations, is assume their good intentions.

Good Intentions

When people start a conversation, they may lead a little negative. This can be easily compounded if they’re also disagreeing with you. Add these two points to the fact that you are also under stress, and communication can rapidly break down.

So, to get out of this vicious circle, start by assuming that, however much they’re disagreeing with you and however much they’re going about it in a way that you don’t find helpful, that their intentions are actually good. They are attempting to help the situation.

By making this first assumption, it becomes much easier to unpack any negativity, break it away from the message that they’re attempting to communicate to you, and focus on that message. They may be wrong, but they’re trying to help. So, focus on that. Assume they mean well. Then, focus on the actual message. Are they right? Partly right? Utterly wrong?

Let’s assume they’re either partly, or completely wrong. While their message was poorly delivered, and they are wrong, again, assuming good intentions, you should respond to the message. Start by thanking them for their good intent. Don’t chide their tone. Model a good tone. Explain where they got things right, and then explain where they got things wrong and why. Keep your own tone positive and clear.

When Others Assume Bad Intentions

This is one I find extremely challenging. While I fail, constantly, my intentions are to be helpful, or at least not hurtful. However, I’ve had many communications with others where they assume bad intent on my part. Not that I’m wrong, stupid, or ill-informed on a given topic (any, or all of which could be possible), but actively evil and attempting to do something bad or hurtful.

I can’t lie about it. This one makes me angry. I will respond poorly to this.

Here’s what I try to do in order to avoid my own negative reactions.

First, determine if I must engage with this person or not. If I can just ignore them, I will. Much better to simply ignore this rather than add to the problem by responding badly. It’s really easy to avoid responding badly, if you don’t respond at all.

Let’s assume, I can’t ignore them, or, I don’t want to. First, I don’t respond right away. If this is a direct conversation, I’ll stop and breath. A couple of breaths to control your breathing, slow your heart rate a little bit, and focus your thoughts, makes a huge difference. If a written conversation, I’ll do the same thing, but can take even longer. Step away from the computer, even look at something else for short period before I respond.

Next, I try, oh and fail so very often, to respond calmly. Instead of immediately addressing the ill intent that I’ve been accused of, I’ll ask them why they think I would do such a thing. Frequently, there’s bad information that can be immediately understood that will help the situation.

However, let’s say that they just think you’re a monster and you’re doing bad things for bad reasons. Again, trying to keep cool, you tell them that it’s simply not true. I try not get into arguments on this though. Instead, attempt to refocus on the actual problem, not my evil intent. This is not easy, and I’m quite bad at it. However, this is what needs to be done, if possible.

Disagreements

We are going to disagree. It’s inevitable. The key is to disagree without leading to massive fights and lots of fallout. So, start by assuming the good intentions of the person you’re disagreeing with. You may find that this makes a lot of the rest of the difficult conversation easier.

9 thoughts on “Assuming Good Intentions

  • Hi Grant,

    Something I’ve used multiple times, when in written communication, is not to calm down but write down what i think at that moment. Full on flame war. Write it down, read it back, delete it. For me, that’s way to get it out of the system and no-one has seen it. Then, i can get to writing the reply that will keep communication going in other terms then “two words, seven letters”.

    Remember to not hit send on your first reply.

  • Sean Redmond

    There is an XKCD cartoon about reading (well, having read to) the comment that you’ve posted on YouTube: https://xkcd.com/481/.

    It’s not exactly the same as what you are talking about but it does give a flavour of the idea that you should what you’ve written as a neutral third party.

  • happydba

    Appreciate this article. It’s a continual struggle to interact with people electronically in a positive way, for all the reasons you described, and covid has exasperated the issue. I had an interaction last week in which someone I deeply respect and have followed for many years accuse me of poor intentions (they obviously don’t know me because internet) and it took everything I had and around 5 hours to cool off enough to not at the least be snippy back (and a handful of rewrites). It’s so hard. But it’s the right thing to do.

  • Great post Grant. I’m enjoying seeing more posts by technical people that I admire, that deal with stress, mental health, and well-being. They do make a difference.

    Just the simple act of assuming positive intent can make the workplace and world a much nicer place to be. I agree with you on others assuming negative intent in me, I find that a real trigger. I guess it just comes down to maintaining the positive, and ensure that their assumptions of negative intent don’t become true?

  • AlexFleming

    This post makes me angry because the idea that someone would assume that Grant has ill intentions is a false, unsubstantiated claim. They would have to lead with some serious evidence because I’ve seen nothing but counter evidence in the form of completely free resources that have helped my career. I don’t care who you are. If you volunteer your time to produce free content that others can use to help their career, then that’s a net positive and the presence of those free resources is evidence of good intentions. The only productive responses I can think of are to attempt to resolve any communication errors and do whatever I can to understand why the person assumes ill intent on my part. If that doesn’t work, it’s possible there’s nothing I can do. Grant (and any other volunteers in the SQL community), I would like to thank you, again, for the free content and appreciate your generosity with your time. Cheers, hopefully this response is a polite distraction from those negative interactions.

    Cheers,

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