Assuming Positive Intent

  • Goal: To avoid negative biases and improve communication.


  • Technique: When someone does something you do not understand, or seems negative, out of line, unreasonable, take the stance of assuming they had a good reason, a good intention.  Then ask the question “I wonder why….?” “Tell me..”


  • Evidence: Positive re-appraisal is a form of cognitive emotion regulation which reduces negative emotion (Ochsner and Gross 2008). Neural pathways are being investigated through fMRI (Otto et al 2014).  Positive trait inference (ie “John is a fair person”) leads to a more flexible interpretation of John’s behavior that a negative trait inference (John is lazy). (Rusconi et al 2017).  Thus Assuming Positive Intent gives people a more flexible starting point in interpreting John’s behavior.   Assuming positive intent is one of the more commonly sited tools that produced positive change for physicians interested in positive behavioral change.  Implicit bias research also shows that we react out of bias unconsciously, , creating a cascade of behavior that we may not want.  This practice can interrupt that cascade, even when we are not initially aware of the bias.


  • Suggestions for use: Employ this DAILY when people say or do things that you don’t understand, or seem negative.


  • Potential Barriers and how to overcome: this is hard to do.  Much easier to react negatively than to ask the question “I wonder why…”.  Takes discipline and practice.  Let others know you are trying to do this, to avoid assumptions and biases.  They can then remind you and help you ask the curious question rather than assuming you know why someone did something.