The Personal Plus of Positive Intent

Intent Final

by Andrea Chilcote

As an observer of human behavior – sometimes student and sometimes teacher – I marvel at the fact that there are so many simple and reliable tools for making relationships of all kinds easier. Even when aware of these tools, we so often fail to employ them in the very circumstances that count.

One example is a simple mental model called “positive intent.” I’ve been working to assume positive intent quite a bit these days, as a way to ease the stresses and frustrations of a busy life. It’s so easy to become irritated by others’ supposed shortcomings or to take personally the minor transgressions seemingly committed on purpose to make life difficult. The principle of positive intent requires us to ask one simple question prior to judging, assuming motive for, or reacting to another person’s behavior.

“What possible, positive reason does he or she have for doing or saying that?”

It doesn’t matter what the answer is. The very moment you have an answer, no matter how preposterous it seems, something shifts. Something very big.

There’s a well-known illustration of the principle in Stephen Covey’s blockbuster title, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In short, as a passenger in a crowded subway, Covey becomes irritated at a father who is not disciplining his unruly children. When he gathers the courage to ask the man to intervene, the father tells him they are all returning from the hospital where their mother (his wife), has just died. Covey experiences an instantaneous paradigm shift. Suddenly his irritation pales in comparison to the man’s grief.

The truth of positive intent is one of the toughest things for our egos to swallow. Yet once we assume there might be a reason for another’s behavior that, while perhaps misguided, to them makes some kind of sense, we are then free. Free of being violated, persecuted or even mildly disrespected, suddenly, our thoughts and feelings are independent of the influence of others’ actions. What a break this gives us, in a world in which we are bombarded by input, some welcome and some not.

We can all assume positive intent in daily interactions with everyone from strangers to casual acquaintances. The benefit is a bit less stress, a tad more peace in our hearts. Can you assume positive intent in the most challenging of your relationships? There lies an opportunity that just might transform those relationships. When we think differently, we act differently. When we act differently, others re-act in new ways. Pat your ego gently on the shoulder and try something new – you might reap a surprising reward.

Give Your Mind a Vacation

by Andrea Chilcote

The following post appeared originally on The Spirited Woman where Andrea is a weekly blogger. This summer, followers of this blog will enjoy bi-weekly archived posts that have appeared on The Spirited Woman but never before on this site. 

“Your body hears everything your mind says,” a Facebook post advised. “Stay positive.”

I would add “stay present,” because the negative messages our minds concoct usually consist of habitual thoughts rooted in the past acting as dire projections onto the future, and they simply don’t exist in the present. Presence is awareness, and awareness can literally determine life or death.

Regular readers know I work very hard at staying present. I got another up-close illustration of just how important it is.

It’s June in Arizona. It’s very hot. Rather than forego daily hikes with my beloved friends and dogs, we hit the trail at 4:45 in the morning, in order to avoid the sun and minimize the likelihood of meeting venomous snakes. The early start affords me a sort of walking meditation before beginning my day. Except yesterday.

I hike attached to my Husky, Kairos, by a skijoring line. While he’s young and still in training, he’s an amazing partner and, most of the time, I feel more steady on my feet because he’s there for balance should I trip. When I’m present (the only safe state of being attached to a powerful dog traversing treacherous desert terrain), I feel as stable as an old oak tree.

Yesterday morning, I was climbing up out of a canyon on a steep, rocky path when Kairos, walking ahead of me, did an about-face and proceeded back down the hill. I was jerked around as he passed me, and was forced into an out-of-control downhill run as his speed increased, screaming as I went.

I looked ahead and saw my friend, Beth, stopped at the bottom of the hill. She had trailed behind to reply to a text. Relieved, I reached to catch her shoulder, slowing my forward momentum just enough to gain control of my footsteps and my dog. We found our brakes and I took a breath.

“My body was stable enough, but my mind was terrified.” These were the first words out of my mouth. The minute I spoke them, I knew the truth. While dangerous, my body had managed the run but in those few seconds, my mind had imagined the worst possible accident, another dire projection into the future. My body knew the truth – one foot in front of the other will save the day. The scenario, from the moment Kairos turned until I gained control, represented the very real danger of being consumed by my thoughts, as well as the miracle of regaining awareness of my surroundings.

You might be wondering why my dog turned and ran uncharacteristically. There was a snake at the top of that hill. Kairos is trained to warn me and avoid them. I’d rather he not do so at Husky speed down a hill (and we will be working on that). While he learns to control his impulses, I’ll be working to model his keen awareness. For now I’m thankful he led me to safety, even though it was a harrowing run.

Back in the neighborhood, I remarked how important and yet how hard it is to stay aware, even in the pre-dawn hours before the stresses of the day pile on. Beth added that so many things we do, like driving cars and crossing busy streets require full awareness. Even so, we split our attention by indulging in thoughts or actions unrelated to the moment at hand. Our guardian angels must be very busy, because most of the time we get away with it.

What are you missing by indulging your mind over your senses? Consider giving your mind a vacation and letting your body guide you.

“When we are present, our bodies are the clearest indicators of our inner wisdom.”

–Sheppard Lake