Assume Positive Intent

Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.

Max Lucado

Conflict is bound to happen whenever there are two (or more) people in the same room. This is true at home, in the office, and even when you’re running errands at the grocery store or bank. As a professional, you have to accept this fundamental principle.

At work, you get in conflict with your boss, peers, suppliers, and even your customers. One thing you have to remember is that conflict is just a difference in ideas.

You want to do X. The other person wants to do Y.

But in almost all cases, you both want to achieve the same goal. You only have two different ideas.

So, what does assuming positive intent mean?

What Conflict Is

Conflict is a disagreement. It’s a difference in opinion.

Unfortunately, what is becoming more prevalent in the workplace is that when people disagree, they (wrongfully) think the other person is attacking them, so they respond with attacks on their own (“that’s just stupid!”).

From there, emotions rise and at the end of it, they think that the other was attacking them when, in fact, they started it themselves by expressing derogatory remarks.

Remember: conflict isn’t an attack on you.

Not a Personal Attack on You

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

George S. Patton

In effective workplaces, conflict happens every single day.


Because conflict facilitates various perspectives. It allows you to see situations and problems from different angles. And this creates better opportunities and solutions.

If you’re new to your office and suggested to implement project ABC, without conflict, then you wouldn’t know that that was just implemented 6 months ago and it was a total failure. Repeating the same thing would just be a waste of resource.

What Does Assuming Positive Intent in the Workplace Mean

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Assuming positive intent means you don’t treat the conflict that is happening now as an attack on you as a person. Just because you disagree on something doesn’t mean the other person is destroying you or out there to sabotage you.

Sure, there are people like that. But that is far more rare than you might think. Think about it. If that is really true, then the world would definitely have crumbled already. If everyone out there is intentionally sabotaging other people, there would be chaos.

Back to the workplace, if you disagree with someone’s idea or approach, then that’s just it.

A difference in opinion.

The next time someone disagrees with you, ask why. Clarify what they mean.

“Thanks, Sam. Can you elaborate more on why we should do that instead of [what I proposed]?”

Reducing Friction

With any conflict, there is always two sides of the equation: you and there other person.

So, if you’re on the other end where you are introducing conflict (i.e. a different idea), do it differently. Use different words to insert your idea. This way, it’s not pitted against theirs.

When you look at most workplace arguments, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the ideas themselves. The problem is how people say them. Snarky comments, snorts, and everything in between.

But what if you use this phrase instead?

“That’s a great idea. I’d like to offer a different perspective. [State your brilliant idea].”

This method allows you to lay the facts AND not put it against the one your boss just made. The phrasing used sends a signal that you are still working towards a common goal and offering a different approach.

Why Is This Important

The modern world relies on other people to keep it going. This is especially true for the workplace. We work in teams day-in and day-out. Because of that, conflict is bound to happen.

With what’s happening around the world, in-person communication is decreasing as well. That means all the subtle body language that accompanies a face-to-face conversation is now missing. So that email, which if delivered in-person, would have been clearly a joke, but now seems very offensive.

A lot of these signals are lost in written communication —email, Slack or Teams, or even in SMS text messages.

Assuming positive intent is one fundamental principle every professional need to be reminded about.

At the end of the day, the more conflict in the workplace, the better refined our ideas and products and services will become.

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