Closely connected to this mindset shift is the ability to “assume noble intent.” The trigger for going into war mode is to assume that you are under attack. Like the husband in our example, you hear a threat and an accusation where there isn’t one. You respond to the threat you think you hear rather than the real person in front of you and the emotional content they are actually trying to communicate. In essence, this sets up a conversation where your defensive ego is warring against the other person’s defensive ego. While the worst parts of yourselves are in vicious battle, the more vulnerable, genuine parts are cowering in the background unacknowledged.
Assuming noble intent goes beyond giving people the benefit of the doubt . . . although many relationships would drastically improve if people did only that! Consciously choose to be a person who approaches any interaction with another human being in a spirit of fairness and kind-heartedness. In the world today, the media constantly bombards people with visions of fear and hatred. They may feel that the world is a hostile, ugly place, and their baseline attitude is one of mistrust. It can be an act of principled bravery to nevertheless choose to see the good in others and lead with honest and noble intentions anyway.
Assuming noble intent is actually a way of applying one’s own higher moral values to one’s own behavior. When you carry yourself with dignity, honesty, and kindness, you naturally expect it in others and can inspire it in return, creating a domino effect of opportunity—the opportunity to be a good human being who works in harmony with other similarly intentioned human beings.
Rather than seeing kindness as something people need to earn, coax out, or win from you, you are generous in spirit and begin with kindness as a default. You have a perspective that invited others to show up as their best selves. With such open-mindedness, you communicate a degree of trust and goodwill to others, open lines of communication, and invite them to engage with you as one worthy peer to another. Yes, we can all view one another as enemies—but why not lead by expecting better from yourself and from them?
If you find yourself feeling bitter about humanity in general, or mistrustful of others, try reminding yourself that people are generally good. Yes, really! When they’re bad, they are so from ignorance, fear, or misunderstanding, or because they lack insight into the consequences of their choices. But we can view the errors of others with compassion and forgiveness, or even with a commitment to understanding them rather than condemning them. Again, this is a perspective that is ennobling for us as much as it is for them!
When you assume that people are doing the best they can with the available resources (inner and outer), then you free yourself from the stress and burden of judging them, and you give yourself the opportunity to connect more deeply with them or to find solutions.
Assume that you are fundamentally good, too. It’s easier to see the noble intent in others when we recognize and exalt it in ourselves. We develop self-esteem and dignity at the same time as we give our trust and beneficence others. No matter the issue or problem at hand, assuming noble intent will make sure you’re getting the most from any communication.
No, you don’t have to be gullible or a pushover. But you empower yourself with your own principles and put them front and center. Lead by example. Assume that others are good by default, right from the start, not because you have evidence for that conclusion, but because this perspective is the fastest and easiest way to understanding and collaboration. It can instantly dissolve hurt and misunderstanding. Adopt this attitude and you may be pleasantly surprised at the nobleness you inspire in others—people want to be good. They want to give you what you want. Isn’t it a relief to go about your business believing this is the case?
We’ve seen how assuming people are enemies is a foolproof way to damaging relationships. Assuming noble intent is the opposite; it’s like fertilizer for growing respectful relationships. Believe that other people’s actions (even their irritating, confusing, or downright awful ones) come ultimately from a place of goodness. Assume people have good characters and want to live by their values. Choose to forego making everyone your adversity and invite them to be better than that. After all, we all have hearts and souls, we all yearn for a higher purpose, we all hurt and feel vulnerable, and we’re all trying our best with the tools we have right now.
Of course, people don’t always have positive intent. From your own perspective, you may not understand their values or agree with them. But try to understand their actions through their lens. Assume that their behavior makes sense to them, if only you could gain insight into the rules that govern their world. It’s very, very easy to assume other people are just jerks are plain evil. But it’s lazy, and it’s never true. Think about all the regrettable actions you’ve taken in the past—in your own way, didn’t you have a reason? Didn’t you deserve compassion and understanding? Even if you acted completely appallingly, it doesn’t negate the fact that right now, you are a human being with hopes and fears and the desire to be better.
Assume that other people are just like you in this regard! People are not always angels, and there are people who do act malevolently. But if we turn up to any conversation or interaction with a readiness and willingness to perceive the intrinsic good in people, we are priming ourselves (and them!) to let our higher values guide us.
Let’s say your mother-in-law gives you a children’s book for your birthday. You’re insulted—it’s a silly kid’s story meant for ten-year-olds; does she think you’re an idiot? If you assume noble intent, you talk to her further and realize she actually bought the gift because she remembers a story about your childhood and thought the book would be a cute bit of nostalgia for you. Now, she’s entirely wrong about this and completely misunderstood your childhood anecdote. But if you can look past this is and see her noble intent, all friction and mistrust dissolves.
If a driver cuts you off on the road, you can shrug and assume noble intent. Maybe they’re having a really bad day. Maybe they’re a teenager and their higher brain hasn’t quite finished maturing yet! Maybe it was a simple accident, and they didn’t maliciously plan to hurt you on purpose.
As a rule, people do the best they can with the tools they have available at the time. Think back to yourself ten or twenty years ago, and the way you solved certain problems or approached certain relationships. Chances are, you’d do things differently now because you know better. Deep compassion comes when you realize that the “bad people” you encounter in life are actually just good people temporarily acting out a bad role in the moment. We had awful tantrums when we were two because we weren’t emotionally mature. We said some regrettable things in the heat of the moment because we were triggered and lashing out in fear. We made the choice we did because, at the time, we weren’t aware of other choices we could have made.
But we grew up and stopped having tantrums, we apologized for lashing out when we calmed down, and we made better choices as we became aware of them. Reminding yourself of this phenomenon in others makes relationships so much calmer and kinder. When you’re face to face with someone doing something you hate or disagree with, or when someone is hurting you, remember that you are not seeing all of who they are. You can respond to the negatively you see in the moment, or you can trust that they have a kinder, more rational and calmer self hiding in there.
Well, what happens if you are serene and magnanimous and assume noble intent in someone who consistently shows you that they’re a complete jerk? Well, you can rest assured that you’ve done your best. Take a breath, step away for a while, and get perspective. You are never responsible for what other people choose. But you will always feel better about yourself if you know in your heart that you have given other people ample opportunity to meet you halfway. Who said you have to convince anyone, anyway? If you’ve assumed noble intent, it’s easy to walk away from truly damaging or negative people with a light heart and a clean conscience.