What were they thinking? Why would they say something like that? Why would they do that?

In today’s increasingly contentious political climate, you’ve likely been asking yourself that more and more often.

Here’s a different question –

Does it even matter why people do what they do?

If someone’s actions hurt you, should you bother wondering what was driving them to act in that way?

To answer this question, consider Eli, a marketing director at a mid-size manufacturing firm.  Eli’s boss has recently gotten more involved in his day-to-day decision-making. Eli is feeling irritated, slowed down, and as if his boss doesn’t trust him. Why is his boss doing this? Eli has two ways of interpreting this:

Interpretation 1: My boss is a classic skeptic and micromanager. She is probably overreacting to the last campaign I ran that underperformed a bit.

Interpretation 2: My boss deeply cares about the business and realizes that this is a critical project with very little margin for error. She is probably getting involved because this is how she feels she can best be helpful.

That first interpretation is easier, isn’t it? It’s easier because it’s automatic, emotional, and hard-wired into who we are as humans. And on the flip-side, that second interpretation – the one that starts with a positive answer to the question “why” – is much more difficult to answer. And not only is it more difficult, it’s the one we need to be practicing, for lots of reasons.

Why Intent Matters

First off, it protects your credibility. In my experience coaching leaders, I have found this interpretation to be the one that is more frequently accurate. Just based on pure statistics, it is more rational to assume positive intent. By assuming positive intent, you’re also rejecting the hasty, negative assumptions that will end up painting you in a negative light.

Second, it protects the relationship. Assuming negative intent makes things an open-and-shut case. Believing that someone did something bad because “that’s just how they are” makes it very clear what your next steps should be. (Yet another reason why that path can be tempting). But writing someone off means there is no option to continue writing the story. When you understand their “why,” you open the door to influence them more effectively and protect a productive relationship.

Third, it protects your sanity. It might be more immediately gratifying to slap a label on someone and write them off, but in the long run, assuming positive intent is better. It means you aren’t wasting “emotional gas” on thoughts like, “Should I be angry” or “How am I going to get even” or “How could they”. Rumination, revenge, and righteous indignation take up a lot of energy. In fact, this recent study found that ruminating on frustrations was related with a 31% increase in burnout. Assuming positive intent means you don’t waste needless emotional energy as a result of others’ actions.

That’s not all to say we should live in a pollyannaish world where no one has bad intent or we just make up convenient excuses for others’ bad behavior. Nor is this meant to say we need to find ways to agree with or endorse others’ actions. Instead, the challenge is to truly understand.

Understanding Intent

It all starts with developing insight into the different things that could drive others’ behavior. At the highest level, this means understanding the context as well as the individual. Telling a joke is more appropriate at a party than a funeral. Competition and one-upmanship within a sports team is more acceptable than in a nonprofit. Extreme pressure and deadlines make micromanaging a more reasonable – if still potentially unhelpful – managerial behavior.

So, it is important to understand the context, but if you want to be truly insightful, it is also critical to understand what drives the individual. What do they care about? How do they define success? What are they pursuing? Some care about being creative and clever. Some need to know there is a bigger picture “vision”. Some want to have great relationships. Some just want to know what the expectations are so they don’t get into trouble. You may resonate with some or all those drivers. Or not.

Maybe your first reaction to all those possible motivations was, “Who would care about those kinds of things?” But the fact of the matter is, those are real reasons why people do what they do. And if you hope to effectively engage people who are different from you – and do so in a way that protects your credibility, your relationships, and your sanity – your best bet is to start by taking a moment to consider why – and starting from a place of positivity.

You just might find that people aren’t so bad, after all.

How to Assume Positive Intent

Now, if you’ve ever tried to assume positive intent, you know it’s easier said than done. To that end, here are a few simple, science-backed tips for helping you assume positive intent.

Be self-aware. How could you rightly infer others’ motivations if you don’t understand your own?  The simple answer, you can’t. In a classic experiment, children around 19 months old were paired with children their own age. What the researchers found was that children who were more aware of their own selves tended to intentionally mirror the actions of the children they were paired with. In other words, self-aware children were also more “other-aware.” In another experiment, researchers found that more self-aware people were better able to take the perspective of their partners and successful guide them through mazes.

Be curious. If you’ve ever tried to develop your self-awareness, one of the first things you’ve likely realized is how much of a hypocrite you are. Don’t be offended, we all are.  A more palatable word might be “inconsistent” or “paradoxical.” The point is, when you really examine why you do what you do, you’ll realize that everyone (to one degree or another) – is a hot mess of values, beliefs, goals and attitudes that don’t always play nicely with one another. Allow that realization to help you slow down the judging cycle and curiously explore the different reasons why someone may have done something.

Be a psychologist. One of the greatest goods, in my opinion, of modern psychology has been the study and labeling of different traits and other variables that drive individual differences in thoughts, actions, and reactions.  While labels can certainly be used for ill, taxonomies can be used to help us simplify, identify with, and appreciate the immense complexity that is human behavior. Once you realize there is a common framework that underlies human behavior, you can start looking for those threads. In our research, we’ve found there are six common threads that drive human behavior. To get a quick grasp on people, look and listen for cues that’ll tell you how people think and feel about risk, ambiguity, relationships, rewards, how work should get done, and how they know what they do matters.

Don’t worry. As you look for the “why” behind others’ actions, you might wonder to yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”  But the fact of the matter is that exactly what is driving others’ actions is beyond your control.  And if there’s one thing we know about ruminating on things you cannot control is it is not good. Whenever you start worrying that your assumption of positive intent may be ill-founded, look for tangible data. Pro tip: to avoid confirmation bias, intentionally set aside time to examine the issue separately, through both a positive (Here’s why what they did made sense) and a negative (Here’s what backs up my thinking about their negative intent) lens.

Assuming positive intent isn’t about being ignorant to the fact that some people are selfish and are simply bad actors. Rather, it’s about playing the odds. Statistically speaking, most people don’t have explicitly bad intentions. Most people do what they do for what they believe to be good reasons. When you start from a place of trust, positivity, and forgiveness – and then layer onto that a solid understanding of the psychology of what drives people – you go further and faster, and with significantly less pain.