January 25

Assume Positive Intent

I have been invited into a newly-forming all-female improv house team. You can imagine our level of excitement, combined with uncertainty. We are all as green as can be. In a recent team meeting, we spent some time exploring group norms, where, among other things, we talked about how we will undoubtedly get hurt by others on the team as we work together. Not on stage, but in off-stage interactions.

I raised the idea of “assume positive intent.” This is a touchstone for Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. She asserts that when we give people the benefit of the doubt, and make no judgments about what they say, it is far easier to listen “generously,” and to delve deeper into the detail of what the person is saying. We’ll be more apt to respond in a positive way. Then, the other person will respond to our positivity by engaging more fully and openly with us.

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.’ ~ Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico

An improv exercise that has been helpful to me in expanding this notion is “This is important because…” The way it works is two players face each other and one person makes an opening statement, “I’m so mad at Mom…,” “You are my angel…,” “Today is the best day of my life…” It doesn’t matter what the opening line is, the other player then comes up with three responses as quickly as possible that all begin “This is important because…” Some of the many responses to “I’m so mad at Mom” are “This is important because Mom is also mad at her,” “This is important because Mom just went to Florida,” “This is important because Mom is tired of babysitting for her.” And so on.

Outcomes of this exercise include improved listening skills, becoming quicker on our feet, and being able to look at verbal statements from many perspectives. These qualities are just as applicable to our everyday lives as they are on the stage.

In the classroom, instead of regarding our students as “trouble-makers,” and “knows-all-the-answers,” and “is-(dis)organized,” we need to see them as Adam and Chloe and Tyler, and recognize each of them has important information and stories to share with us.