Assuming positive intent

I think when I first meet someone or read some thing that I even ~roughly disagree with is to assume the other person is deficient in some way. Perhaps I judge their intelligence or more often judge their care. Like I see a version of sloppiness, more specifically unintentional sloppiness (defined as the characteristic of making mistakes not in the bounds of your intentions. For instance you will see on this blog some typos — but that’s fine because my objective of the project is merely to write 1 million words — but we will return to this defense in a moment because part of my path to reasoning was to recognize in the mirror that making unintentional mistakes WAS not necessarily indicative of my abilities and may more be an indication of my systems that I am using), and I immediately jump to thinking that the author does not care about details. That is the story I tell myself — that does not make it a good story to tell myself nor does it make it a true story I remind myself.

In this essay, I am interested in understanding that behavior further. First, though, I want to express my acknowledgement that NOT assuming positive intent, or rather assuming “mal intent” in any capacity actually has really negative implications FOR SELFISH PURPOSES. Meaning, it hurts me to think this way. It robs me of personal learning and development and growth. It makes life feel more lonely. It creates a mode of distance between myself and the people around me (and things I read and consume).

A reasonable question or rather set of questions is getting to the root of why am I doing this and what are the underlying drivers behind this. I will get to those in a moment but first I want to really go through the maze of understanding why making snap intent judgements is so dangerous a game to be playing.

There are many angles to this puzzle. One that speaks extremely loudly to me is recognizing that I cannot change or mind read people. That is a confession, one that I have made many times over, that no matter how much I plead, I will never (really ever) be able to get people to do precisely what I want in any conversation. They will not actively do things they do not like or do not understand for extremely long periods of time. Life is a game in a lot of ways of cost benefit analyses and if they do not see what I see, and do not see the equations as I see them, and do not arrive at the same conclusions or at least net positive (for themselves) conclusions, then there is no way I am going to get them across the finish line. So this story in my head that I may make up — this story that I am capable for whatever reason of triangulating precisely how and why a person is doing a thing and what is to come of them doing said thing <- that is really a fool’s mission. I have said this before, I have written about this before, but as you can say even in my writing now for 100 reasons (probably will get to at least some of them in a moment) I have not yet developed complete conviction in this arena. That is to say that even though I have confessed and accepted and denied and accepted again, my brain wants to every so often fool me into thinking that I can play the story in my head.

Which is to say that my default mode of operating when it comes to engaging with other humans and trying to come up with stories about their why in particular tends to OVERESTIMATE their sophistication and complexity. In other words, I make the story more complicated than it really is, in reality. I make the story more precise, elaborate, and intentional than the story going on in their head. Like the motives may be true from a purely what would be logical perspective, but that story is not an accurate one in any applied sense. I quote Dostoyevsky loosely in Brothers Karamazov in that our enemies — the bad guys — are even much simpler than we give them credit for. When someone does something that negatively impacts you, my default assumption tends to swing in one of two large directions. Either I find them to be absolutely dull OR I find them to be absolutely evil. The absolutely dull stance is that they are holistically morons and this is just a product of that. The absolutely evil stance is that, while they still be more moronic, this attempt to do something negative to me was intentional and planned and a part of a scheme they have to get me in some capacity. Now, even writing this (and for your reading this), you may see a smirk of sorts. Because these are extreme! Like, 99% of the time, at least in my limited experience here on earth, neither of them are true in the slightest. Now note that I have a problem with using the word true in general in the capacity that very few things in life are true or false. So when I say true, perhaps I mean consistent. There’s more to this, but I want to focus on the meat at hand.

The meat being my tendency to skew reality. I blame the other party. I blame their emotional illogical response. But as I have written about before this is the thing creating an emotional loop of sorts that is actually getting (or at least let’s give me some responsibility/ownership here as I am by no means a victim getting caught in this loop) me to react emotionally. Or put a simpler way, I am reacting emotionally to their emotional reactions. And that is putting on emotional blinders of sorts onto my eyes such that I am skewing reality in an unproductive manner.

I am assuming negative intent one way or the other. I make up this whole story in my head. And it’s wrong. And I am the fool for doing so. No matter how dumb what they are saying is in reality, I am the fool! Interesting how that works. How my reaction to the reaction was/is so silly. It is interesting, at least to me, that I am not even talking about the words I say. The words I say I perhaps can very well control. But my thoughts. Can I control those? That is far less clear to me. Like my response is controllable — I can surely say nothing or smile and wave or just move along the conversation or one of a hundred different options. But my thoughts. My mental wince. When I see something off, how will I know it’s off? Well, I will have a thought of course. That thought will be driving me in the “that’s off I should do something about it direction.” So I think another point of acceptance here, one that I have tried to make in perhaps a slightly different angle, is that the thought is going to come no matter what. At least for some time.

I have a few options:

  • Allow the thought to come and allow it to pass by or hit me but not react to it
  • Overpower the thought with a complementary thought, something about positive intent for example

That latter option is definitely one I have attempted before to varying levels of seriousness, that is to say I could probably and will probably attempt it again. More precisely, the thinking with the latter is to just remind myself over and over and over again – with small microdose examples – that being curious trumps being obstinate. Like I could add a splash of curiosity, or a bucket of curiosity rather, that overpowers the reaction that is default negative. That would equalize things out more and serve as a reminder to not react and also help the negative thought pass by more smoothly.

Now to enter as to why the negative thought is even happening in the first place. There’s a lot to this. If I had made more time to get these words out, I think I would have. I probably should have started this essay on this topic. The above are roughly remixes of thoughts I had written before in many other essays. This is also something I have touched on but is maybe? a harder topic for me to articulate at this point.

My thinking as to why default critical intent is not as crisp as I would like to be nor as confident but it does have some legs. Which is to say that I grew up in an environment where more things than one were default wrong. In other words, in some interactions with parents teachers and friends I uncovered that a lot of what was being told to me to accept as gospel was not actually gospel. This unintentionally perhaps created a distrust of sorts that led me to default be critical. This has proven me badly as described above but also has a lot of benefits in pursuit of what some would call first principled thinking. Beyond the environmental conditioning that I described above, I think I also have participated in a culture where sarcasm was valuable in so far as it got laughs. And for me, getting laughs has always been a joy. Points of sorts on the social validation leaderboard. So in situations where I have not found the positive, and was looking for a way out of awkwardness, I think I found the quick jab to be a good source of humor.

Finally, and I think most productively, I think my default to writing this would be to say that it is easier to assume negative intent than it is to assume positive intent. And I think that is a lie. Like I think I would like to think it takes less energy but why not give more people the benefit of the doubt. Even writing that makes me tingle a bit. It makes me want to say why should I? And that is because I do not intentionally view what I am doing as going out of my way to make up negative stories in my head. I view it as seeking truth. But I am thinking too rigidly. Life is not physics and even physics has flexibility.

Anyways, the above was not an essay I was particularly proud to write (both for the content and the style) but at least I got some thoughts out.