So many of the problems we have in relationships are due to attributing negative intentions to another person, with or without justification. Remember, whether something comes across to you as positive or negative depends entirely upon your own perception.
When we stop looking for the bad, the flaws, the failures, and start looking for the good in people, we see them in a different light and consequently we treat them differently. Relationships improve. Try out this “workout” about finding the good and see what difference it makes in your life.
1. Pick an Artichoke
Choose a situation with another person for which you have negative feelings. We will call the other person’s actions in this situation “the artichoke” (because we are going to peel away the layers). Now, as if you were a newspaper reporter, summarize the situation or actions with a headline and write it down. You just named your artichoke. (No, I don’t generally name my produce.)
2. Peel the Artichoke
When you peel away all the layers, at the heart of an artichoke is something good, tender, and if prepared properly, delicious. Likewise, if you peel away enough layers, at the heart of every action is a good intention.
Below your headline, do the following:
- Start listing all the possible intentions behind the other person’s actions. Circle the positive ones.
- For the negative intentions, start peeling away the layers to find the good ones. For example, if one of the intentions you list is “revenge”, what positive need would motivate someone to seek revenge? A sense of fairness? A desire to avoid or ease the pain of loss? A need to build one’s own self esteem?
- Once you have peeled away the negative layers to get to the positive, cross out the negative and circle the positive. Look at the list. If you know the person well enough to zero in on one or two, do it; otherwise, leave your list as-is.
3. Prepare the Sauce
Based on this new perspective, identify one action you could take to improve the situation. What will you do? How will you treat the person differently?
That’s it. There’s your workout – give it a try!
With the possible exception of people with specific medical disorders, everything we do has a purpose. Psychologist Alfred Adler is credited with saying that “All behavior is purposeful.” This is true. Now, whether or not the behavior is accomplishing the intended purpose is another matter.
I’m going to take it a step further and say that all behavior has at its root a positive intent. This is where people may start to disagree with me, but frankly, I think I’m right. When you peel away all the layers you find a positive need someone is trying to fill. I have yet to find a situation where I haven’t found one.
Before we go any further, let me be the first to acknowledge that somewhere between positive intent and action something can go horribly wrong. When I discuss this with students we do an exercise where I use the example of murder. Most people would describe this as a tragic, evil and wrong act. My students are always highly skeptical at first, but when they start listing possible core intents (self protection, protection of a loved one, a desire for control of one’s one life, seeking justice, etc.) they find things that are not in and of themselves bad. In fact, they are fundamentally positive intents. In our example of murder, between intent and action something went very wrong in how they chose to accomplish the intent.
Now, I am in no way condoning murder – far from it – but it is important to recognize that what fundamentally drives people are positive needs. If we are able to find a positive intent deep behind a heinous act, how much more likely are we to find positive intents behind the everyday acts of people in our lives?
I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again: You see what you look for. If you look for the positive intents behind people’s actions towards you, you will find them. In fact, you will more often than not find one of two things:
- The person has genuinely good intentions towards you, even if it did not come across that way; or
- It actually has nothing to do with you at all – the person is just dealing with their own stuff.
Think about how liberating it can be to see the world that way. The next time you have an argument with a friend or loved one, the next time you have to give a speech or presentation, or the next time someone posts something stupid about you on social media, give it a try. When you see things from the positive perspective you will deal with them differently and more effectively than if you go looking for the negative. You will find your connection with other people to be more meaningful and your own life enriched. Guaranteed.