One of my sisters-in-law used to be an attorney, a litigator. I remember her telling me one of the hardest things to prove in law is intent. It may not be hard to establish with certainty what happened in a particular case, but determining someone’s state of mind, their motivation, was much more difficult to prove.
That conversation was decades ago. Not only did it stick with me, I’ve thought about it quite a bit over the years and never more than in recent weeks. Most Americans are engaging in difficult, often uncomfortable, conversations that force us to look at our society and more importantly ourselves.
Some of the difficulty in having conversations around race and justice is the fear of being misinterpreted. You’ve probably heard fear causes a fight, flight or freeze response in animals as well as humans. None of those responses will help you have constructive dialog.
Rules around what words or phrases can and cannot be used seem to be in a constant state of flux. For example, there was a time when saying, “I don’t see color,” was taken as a good thing. It meant first and foremost the person making the statement saw people of color simply as human beings.
This was brought top of mind for me as I reread a book about legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. A few former black players from UCLA wrote to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar encouraging him to choose the school and one reason was because they said coach Wooden didn’t see color.
Today the same statement about not seeing color is offensive to some who say it disregards their reality and experience as a person of color.
Not knowing what to say, the fear of saying the wrong thing or being misinterpreted, is holding some people back at a time when we need to be talking and listening.
Assume Positive Intent
For my own part I’m going to assume positive intent. The reality is, outside of our family and closest friends we only know what others choose to let us know. In other words, we don’t often know why they do what they do or believe what they believe.
If you look for the bad in someone you’ll find it. As I wrote last week, there are no devils, no angels, we’re all somewhere in between. Knowing this I’m going to make a more concerted effort to look for the good in people by assuming positive intent.
If someone holds an attitude or makes a statement I disagree with I can still look for positive intent. Why do they hold that view? Am I asking questions and listening more than I am speaking? Can I affirm where they’re coming from before sharing my point of view?
Some people will say or do things that offend you. It happens, that’s part of life. Most people I know don’t try to offend others. In fact, in many cases people may not know that what they said or did was offensive. Can you find it in your heart to extend grace in those moments?
Giving grace doesn’t mean you don’t address whatever offended you. However, putting grace first will probably change how you approach the situation.
What’s your goal in the conversation? Is it to win the person over by helping them see how their words and/or actions could be offensive? Is your hope that they might understand your perspective and change? If that’s the case, then how you address them might make a huge difference so don’t lose sight of your goal.
Give to Get
It really comes down to this; how do you want others to treat you when you make a mistake? The principle of reciprocity tells us people feel obligated to give back to those who first give to them.
When you assume positive intent it’s likely others will do the same with you. When you extend grace rather than judgement you’re more likely to receive grace in return.
Many years ago, a quote from rapper Eminem made its way around social media. He’s reported to have said, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. If you’re nice to me I’ll be nice to you. Simple as that.” He was publicly applauded for his view but there’s a better way.
What if Eminem, in deed all of us, lived this way, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, short, tall, fat, skinny, rich or poor. I will be nice to you. I hope you’ll be nice to me too. Simple as that.”
Whatever we want from others; assumption of good intent, grace, help, trust, respect, etc., we have to be willing to extend it first. Will everyone respond in kind? No. But, I do believe enough will that it will start to make our society what we want it to be – free of racial discrimination, fair and just for all.
To Do This Week
Here are a few things can do immediately because they only require a making choice:
- Assume Positive Intent. Look for the good because there’s plenty to be found.
- Give Grace. Respond to people in ways that you’d want them to respond to you.
- Engage Reciprocity. Be the first to act by giving to others what you would like them to give to you.
Remember, change starts with each of us individually. Gandhi said as much when encouraged people to be the change they wanted to see.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence.
Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was name one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by Book Authority! His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 100,000 people around the world!