Assuming Good Intentions in a Divisive World

One of the guiding principles of my life is to assume that people have good intentions in what they do and say. That means that people are doing the best the can with what they know, and given their life experiences/culture. I’ve found that doing this allows me to easily straighten out misunderstandings, to listen with an open mind, and to learn from others. I find that almost every time I think someone is going something to be mean, unkind, or ignorant, they didn’t mean it the way it came across, or were missing some information that would straighten things out. It’s a good principle.

We’re all doing our best. Image by @BrittNashPix via Twenty20

Is this hard to do? Why, yes, it certainly is. It’s very easy to mess this up in more than one way.

I am the center of the universe. NOT.

First, you can slip into the mindset that everything revolves around you, so anything anyone does or says that upsets you must be on purpose. I had a graduate school friend who did this. Once I had to talk him down from leaving school just because a professor didn’t say hello to him when she passed him in the hallway. To him, it HAD to be because she disapproved of him, his dissertation topic, or something. To me, she could have been thinking about the class she was about to teach, an issue with her children, or many other things…she could have been just daydreaming. The discussion was painful.

Second, you can fall into the trap of making assumptions about motives. That’s the one that gets to me. I have been known to assume that people have some agenda that I don’t fit in, so they ignore me, or say things that appear to me to reject my input. That’s often not the case, as I find out when I snap out of it and have a reasonable discussion (or say something unhelpful, which also happens a lot, just ask my family).

Most religions say they are about peace, honest!

Third, you can put labels on people that over-generalize them and lump them together into some group you don’t have a high opinion of. That’s where we get racist, sexist, classist, and ethnic stereotypes that don’t give people a chance to be individuals with their own motives. I’ve lived around enough different groups of people that this one doesn’t trap me as much as the assumption one. However, it has taken me over 60 years to overcome some of the labels I put on members of certain religious groups. I’m very grateful to have met people who gently point out the fact that all religions have different factions and that I could probably find people very much like myself in all of them, if I’d just look. So, not all members of certain traditions don’t want to take my rights away or hate me because of my beliefs. I must remind myself of this!

What Makes It Harder

As you know (because you do not live under a rock) these are hard times to be reasonable people. All sorts of forces are conspiring to pit us against our neighbors in our towns, states, countries, and the world. We take our assigned label and cling hard to it, assuming that people we assign another label all have horrible intentions, are stupid, want to harm us, and are the reason everything’s so bad. Right? It’s not just here in the US. Check out the UK, for example, and yes, even Canada has its factions (read the news, you’ll see!).

I happen to know, live with, and interact frequently with people who are assigned different labels from me. I have to talk to them, work with them, and read their social media postings. Sometimes, since most of us don’t wear our labels on our lapels, the back of our trucks, or our speedboats, we get surprised to find out someone we like is one of “them.” Ooooh, noooo.

Well, they are still the same person you have something in common with, or you wouldn’t like them. Maybe they were brought up in a different community from you. Maybe they have had pivotal experiences that affect their thinking. And yeah, maybe they just follow along with their crowd, because it’s easier to do than pushing boundaries or sticking out. Hey, people on your side do it, too.

The challenge is to assume that they hold their beliefs, not because they personally hate you or your friends, but because the vast majority* of people you disagree with honestly think they are doing the right thing. They may be wrong, but for their internal value systems, it’s right for them. You (I) may be wrong, too. Confirmation bias and all that.

So, my plan is to work even harder on assuming good intentions for the next few months. This doesn’t mean I won’t work hard for causes I believe in, won’t vote as hard as I can for my preferred candidates, or won’t practice my own spiritual beliefs that work for me. It just means I’m going to try as hard as I can to remember the “other” side are people, too.

I will note that sometimes it will mean I can’t answer a question, because I can’t come up with a way to say things that won’t come across as insulting. And I’ll screw up. Some things really push my buttons. I bet you have buttons, too. And when I’m tired, overwhelmed with my work, or worried about things, I may be less than a sterling example of someone living their beliefs. But I’m going to TRY.

It’s a beautiful world, too.

In the end, we all have to share our world. It’s the one we have.


*Yes, some people are mean. Some people are full of hate. Some people really fit stereotypes; that’s how they become stereotypes. It’s just that I firmly believe that MOST people I disagree with are not this way.

I Misunderstand Commitments

Sometimes, when you’re walking on a hot day and trying to ignore the pain in your legs from climbing hills (you can tell I was in Austin), you get a sudden insight into how communication works and doesn’t work, and your life suddenly becomes better. Well, it happened at least once, and that was yesterday.

I was just enjoying myself not thinking about work during my one-hour break between meetings, and I started to think about how some of the people in my life announce their plans/intentions/commitments. They state them very firmly. “Things will be this way from now on.” “I will act on this plan going forward.” Things like that.

The post is about language, and I think this is cute. Photo by @NAO via Twenty20

In my little head, I interpret such statements as firm commitments. I then adjust my own expectations to go with these plans. If someone says, “I’m going to do this twice a week,” I expect that to happen twice a week. If someone says, “This is the next project I plan to do,” I get my inner expectations set that way.

This is not the other person’s problem; it’s mine. This leads to much disappointment and confusion when life happens, plans change, or the dreaded “spontaning” occurs (that’s what Lee and I call being spontaneous). I get worked up about people not keeping their commitments, or confused when I hear the twice a week thing didn’t happen starting the next week.

Javascript is inside my head. No wonder I get confused. Image by @Mehaniq via Twenty20,

My insight was that when people around me make these declarations, they are not stating a commitment, they are stating an intention. They’re not stating a definite plan, but more of a tentative plan for the moment. And that’s perfectly fine, because that’s how stating plans or intentions work for them. And besides, even people like me, who state things with all expectations that the plan will be stuck to, sometimes have to change things when circumstances change. Huh, I’d been being rather rigid in my expectations of others!

They sure do. Image by @MPstockart via Twenty20

So, now that I’ve reset my expectations, I’ve a word of advice for those of you who didn’t get this concept hammered into their heads while studying linguistics (almost everyone!).

Your internal set of meanings for words and phrases may actually NOT coincide (probably don’t coincide) exactly with other people’s.

me

Language is really, really ambiguous. That’s why we rely so hard on tone of voice, facial expression, past knowledge of the person we’re talking to, and sincere hope to communicate anything at all. We all have our own internal grammar, semantics (meanings for words), and pragmatic style.

Now you know why I only communicate with snuggles. They are universal.

So, when there are misunderstandings, which there inevitably will be, let’s not be so hard on each other. It’s a miracle that we manage to communicate at all!

Testing My Resolve about Good Intentions

I keep telling you one of my rules for life is to assume good intentions. I want to make the assumption that everyone I interact with is doing the best they can with the information they currently have. I want to assume the vast majority of people don’t set out to be mean, rude, arrogant, or unkind on purpose. I like to think that nearly everyone is capable of caring for the health and well being of others.

I can dream, can’t I? This whole pandemic thing seems like a big test of humanity, and one that is supporting the “man’s inhumanity to man” viewpoint (I’m quoting, so forgive me for the sexism).

Yes, what this donkey is telling us.

Like many of my friends, my convictions have been tested strongly by people who come across as unconcerned about making friends and family members sick from a potentially deadly disease. No matter how hard you try to isolate, wipe things down, go nowhere, and see no one, it just takes one person who isn’t as careful to get you all infected.

I keep thinking of people I know who are essential workers, and have to be out in public. You know, the grocery store workers, the health care professionals, the police, the delivery drivers. They never know when a person who just doesn’t care will walk in and cough all over them. That then puts their own families at risk.

This doesn’t protect you from people who don’t care.

No longer is this just theory. Every single day I hear of a person who “doesn’t believe in” germs, or something, who gets infected and goes on their merry way. Not somewhere else. No, in the places where my loved ones live. They infect people I care about, and I can’t go help them or be with them. That makes assuming good intentions quite difficult.

Of course I’m not alone in this. Most people I know feel this way. Even people who are philosophically opposed to taking certain precautions don’t seem to want to make other people sick.

Where was I going with this? I guess the thing is that even if nearly everyone is coming from a place of good intentions and trying to do the right thing (even if their different backgrounds might cause them to choose differently from me), all it takes is a couple of people who honestly don’t give a flip about the rest of the world to ruin lives.

Let’s just get out of here, like Sara and Apache are here.

Is there nothing we can do about this? Should we just throw out the idea that people are doing the best they can? Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something and build a better future. I guess that depends on who’s left after all these viruses and other contagions (racism, fascism, random divisiveness, etc.) run their course.

We’re Doing the Best We Can!

In my recent post about core values, I mentioned the guiding principles I try to live by:

  • Treat others how you’d like to be treated
  • Assume good intentions
  • Love yourself

They go along with the core values I figured out that drive me: kindness and making a difference.

It’s important to revisit your intentions, because if you don’t keep putting them out into the world, they can just whither away. The stressful state most of the people I know are in right now makes it really, really easy to wallow in sadness, self-pity, or anxiety. People like me can experience some remarkably steep reversals in their personal growth (which I’ve mentioned a couple times in the past few weeks, so no need to beat that topic to death).

Perhaps I need this sign in my new office. Image by @dunahoot217 via Twenty20.

The Golden Rule’s been taking a bit of a beating lately, when I find myself getting defensive and not saying things as kindly as I would prefer to, and it doesn’t help that my attempts at being kind or helpful can get misinterpreted, leading to an ugly circle of no one being at their best. Knowing perfectly well that the only person whose behavior I can change is mine, I’m going to try to stay a little more in my higher self zone, and not reflect back any perceived negativity I get from friends and family, which might stop the circle.

trying
I deserve a reward.

This brings me to the second principle, of assuming good intentions, or that everyone’s doing their best. This topic has independently come up a number of times in the past few days, which hints that I need to be paying attention, right? Just as I’m firmly convinced I’m doing my best (in other words, I’m not being mean just to be mean…ever), I need to remember that the people I interact with are ALSO doing their best. I have fallen down at this lately, but now’s the time to get started again!

Honestly, I don’t know anyone who’s a jerk just for fun (I’ve probably de-friended them), and even people with whom I disagree strongly usually have their hearts in the right place or are acting sincerely based on their upbringing, culture, and experiences. I have started practicing making a conscious effort at remembering that, and am amazed at how differently I act. I just need to keep it up, both online and in person!

Coming from a place of love, not anxiety!

Bear in mind, friends, that sometimes things just don’t come out like they are intended, whether from tone of voice, lack of tone of voice (text, email, social media posts), nervousness, or simple misunderstandings. I need to give people a break. People need to give me a break. We all need to give each other a break!

Lee and I have been having some good conversations on these kinds of things lately, and we’ve found our own communication getting a lot easier. I am proud of both of us! By explaining where we are coming from, we can be a lot easier on each other’s little foibles (because we ALL have them!). His support and understanding mean so much to me (along with some other helpful and trusted confidants). I suggest you try out the whole assuming good intent thing on those closest to YOU and see how it works!

Image may contain: Sue Ann Kendall, eyeglasses, selfie and closeup
Teamwork! That’s what counts, say the blue hairs (this picture is from early 2019 I think).

And one more thing, if anyone is at their best right now, firing on all cylinders, working at 100%, and treating everyone they encounter with kindness and understanding, please write a book really quickly and tell the rest of us how you did it! It would be a major blockbuster best seller!