Do you ever wonder how much time you spend on trying to figure out if a comment someone meant was kind or passive aggressive? If you were not included in something, did you take it as a personal slap in the face? Do you read an email and stew for hours about the condescending tone?
You can’t see me, but I’m meekly raising my hand right now.
Most of us are guilty of getting distracted by how we believe others are treating us. It saps our energy, impacts our mood, and often ensures we waste our most valuable commodity: time.
Positive intent is a term often associated with evangelical Christians, but in the past decade it has been seen as an important strategy to minimize workplace discourse. I believe, however, it could be the tool to change the course of the Mommy Wars.
At a macro level, positive intent means that there is always a positive function or purpose for what is currently happening in our lives. For the purpose of this post, positive intent is the belief that negativity often begins in the fabrication of thoughts in one’s own mind, often related to our insecurities. Living with positive intent is taking other people’s actions and words and working under the assumption that the majority of people are kind and are not out to hurt you. Net-net is this: when unsure, always think the best of someone.
I first heard about positive intent when Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsi, discussed it in an interview with Fortune magazine back in 2008. It sounded smart at the time if you were in the workplace, but I didn’t think to apply it to my daily life. She commented:
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’ So ‘assume positive intent’ has been a huge piece of advice for me.
A few years back, I became consumed with some negativity. I had some issues with other women in my life who I felt were thinking the worst of me. The negativity spilled over into other relationships, and I became even more sensitive when communicating with friends and family. I became distracted and the harder I tried to get out of my funk, the deeper I fell into it.
And then one day the lightbulb went off. These situations, these “conflicts,” well, they weren’t about my issues. They weren’t about me at all. Sure, I played a role in it — the poor way I reacted, the lack of empathy I offered. But changing my perspective, changing the way I thought about the situation and the people in it, allowed me to find the peace I was seeking. As Elsa said, I was finally able to let it go.
I began to look at every interaction differently. If I felt threatened, I decided to believe that the person I was dealing with had my best interests at heart. If I felt someone was being passive aggressive, I continued to act with kindness knowing that I determined who I was, and how I behaved; not the person standing opposite of me. And when I felt another mom was judging me, I just let it go with the belief that there must be something she was feeling in that moment and it wasn’t about me.
While the practice of positive intent can be difficult, it is also extremely liberating. It makes you less defensive, less distracted, and less likely to engage in a conflict that may only exist in your own mind.
Now trust me, living with the mindset of positive intent does not mean I let people walk all over me, or that I am a saint. People still drive me crazy and there are times when I know someone deliberately caused harm and confronting her is the only option; however, by giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing their intent was positive, we relieve ourselves from engaging in an unproductive situation.
As moms, we often have a huge problem with embracing this philosophy. Living with positive intent would mean every time we feel judged, we would have to ignore our instincts. But think of how many scenarios can be misconstrued.
For example, one time I was at a park playdate with a friend whose son is on the Autistic spectrum. As we chatted on a bench, we watched another mom with beady eyes track my friend’s child across the playground. He was loud and he had to be reprimanded several times. My friend mentioned to me that she could feel the judgment seething out of the other mom’s body. “She probably thinks I am a bad mom, and that I can’t control my kid.”
As we walked past this mom as we left the park she stopped us. She shyly asked my friend if they went to the same therapist office, as she thought she had seen her son there the week before. Apparently she was new to the area and was looking for some support groups to join.
Without that personal interaction that explained the situation, we probably would have talked about that awful mom judging us at the park. If we were living with positive intent, we would have suppressed our insecurities and felt more positively about her actions — no matter how awkward it seemed at the time.
A personal example is how offended I used to be when working moms would say, “I don’t know how you stay at home with your kids all day. I know I couldn’t do it.”
I always felt this was a condescending and passive aggressive statement, until I heard it out of the mouth of a dear friend. I know she would never want to hurt my feelings. And honestly, I do not think she could stay at home with her daughter. Despite being a great mom, she would go crazy. Looking at it from her perspective — looking at it from a place of positivity — made me wonder about the other times that I let it bother me. Whose insecurities were the comment really highlighting?
There are also times in our lives when we feel someone is lashing out at us. This could be a mean email from a PTA mom, an admonishing note from the teacher, or a snarky text from a friend. Our initial reactions are often defensive and negative. Instead, we have to think about what we know about the person — or if we know them at all — and take the time to understand why this person is confronting you in this way. Our initial defense mechanism is always to blame the person we feel is hurting us, but what if we believed that their behavior was unintentional as opposed to unkind? What if instead of thinking that mom is a bitch, we instead think about what is creating the negative situation?
Sometimes when another person points out a flaw or a mistake we made, our first reaction is: “How dare she! Like she is so perfect.”
If we force ourselves to step back, perhaps we could see the person is only doing their job or possibly, has hurt or frustrated feelings herself.
According to a book about positive intentions by Ken Patrick: “When negative issues arise in our relationships, if we immediately presume good intentions by one another, conflicts and problems can be resolved easily and quickly.”
Who doesn’t want that?
In all honesty, I am not sure if living a life with positive intent could end the Mommy Wars, but I certainly think that it can’t hurt to try.
So the next time you feel wronged by someone, take a step back and look at it from a different direction — a positive one.
Living a life of positive intent has been a passion of mine the last few years. It has helped me personally in my relationships and in my marriage, but more importantly, it helps with forgiveness and empathy towards other parents. While I am still learning, a great start is the short book Presume Positive Intentions by Ken Patrick available on Amazon.
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