Est. reading time: 7 ½ min
Let’s explore positive intention. Therapists, life coaches, consultants and personal development trainers should find this concept remarkably useful.
Introduction to positive intention
Why do people keep making the same mistakes over and over again despite wanting to change their behavior? In NLP or neuro-linguistic programming, positive intention says that there may be a part of them that is served by negative behavior.
Positive intention is a helpful approach for interpreting our own behaviors as well as the behavior of others. It is a concept derived from humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and the family-dynamics therapist Virginia Satir.
Positive intention is the idea that people are autonomous agents with free-will, and we make choices because an action will either be beneficial to us or to a part of us. If we interact with people based on the presupposition that their actions are inspired by positive intentions, although their current strategies for achieving those intentions may be misguided and harmful, then we might be able to deal with those people in a more compassionate way.
Framing our interactions in this way also allows us to come up with ways to help people realize their own underlying positive intentions and work on fulfilling them in more productive ways.
What is positive intention?
NLP practitioners assume that behind most behavior is a positive intention. Typically, people are pretty good at naming their own positive intention when challenged (I was only trying to help…) but often have a harder time seeing the positive intention of others.
Positive intention means that people do things because they think that they will gain something from their behavior. Seeing things from this perspective, we might be more understanding of people’s ignorance, rather than being overly critical of what seems to be their unreasonable behavior. From this lens, it allows us to look for what intentions might be underlying their unhelpful behavior. If we can determine what intention is underneath the behavior, then we can help them to conjure up novel approaches to successfully get what they want. Ultimately, with this model of thinking we become less focused on someone’s perceived short-comings and mistakes and more focused on using imagination and reason to develop new problem-solving strategies.
History of positive intention in psychology
The idea that people harbor positive intentions behind their behavior – especially destructive behavior – is relatively new. Prior to Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and the onset of humanism, the notion that people were driven by positive desires didn’t factor in to the prevailing theories of Freudian psychology or behaviorism. Freud supported the idea that our behavior is driven unconsciously by the id, ego, and superego, while B.F. Skinner and behaviorism outright rejected the notion of free-will.
Assuming that behind every behavior is a positive intention is a primary assumption of NLP. Carl Rogers and the humanistic psychology movement was one of the first mediums through which the idea of positive intention gained ground. Rogers introduced the concept of unconditional positive regard. Abraham Maslow suggested that a fundamental desire in people is to self-actualize. These frameworks broke from the traditions in psychology prior to humanism, which had to do with Psychodynamic Freudian theory, which held that unconscious forces determine our makeup and our behavior. In addition, B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism basically saw people as machines without free-will, programmed by the environment and products of conditioning.
However, when Rogers came along, he changed all of that and introduced the idea of having an unconditional positive regard for clients. He championed seeing clients as people that you have a warm acceptance of. From there, different psychologists applied the concept of positive intention. Virginia Satir, the family therapist took the idea of positive intention and applied it vigorously to her work with people, and NLP developers adopted this framework.
How NLP uses positive intention
When we work with clients under the assumption of positive intentions, it leads to interesting outcomes. If I’m doing a behavior that’s not good for me or other people, then I can look for the positive intention behind that behavior and find other ways to fulfill the positive intention.
There is an exercise called the 6-step reframe specifically designed to help people verbalize their unwanted behavior and identify the possible positive intention that underlies it. For example, let’s say that someone is a compulsive smoker despite realizing that it is harmful to their health and well-being. What could possibly be the positive intention underlying this behavior? Maybe they work at a job where people often take smoke breaks, and smoking offers them the opportunity to get away from work and be social. Taking breaks and socializing can be powerful motivations, so what are some other ways to fulfill these desires without smoking? Maybe they could take a break and go for a short walk around the office building instead. Perhaps they could do some deep breathing or have a coffee break. Maybe they could spend more time with people socializing during their lunch break. This exercise is an opportunity to flex the muscles of analysis and imagination. It is a method for identifying underlying motivations and generating new ways of fulfilling those motivations. Sometimes more intervention is needed because old and deep-running habits can be complex. However, once the underlying intention is understood and the defunct strategy is spelled out, the strategy can be altered.
Here is another example of working under the framework of positive intention. Let’s say that I’m yelling at my kids because I want them to be their best. I want to be a good father and help my kids be their best, and that’s the intention behind yelling at them. The yelling doesn’t necessarily fulfill the positive intention, even though it’s attempting to fulfill that positive intention. So, if I start with a positive intention, which is that I want to be a good father and care for my children, then I can begin really brainstorming ways to effectively fulfill that positive intention. Assuming a positive intention can open many doors. What are some other possible ways that I can help my kids be their best? Perhaps I can watch inspiring and motivational YouTube videos with them, or maybe I can discuss the merits of trying their best with them, and ask them to determine what the benefits of putting in extra effort might be.
Unconditional positive regard is a concept created by Carl Rogers which states that people should be seen as independent and autonomous and their free-will and self-determination should be respected. It is the idea that people make the best choices that they can based on the situation at hand and their particular desires. However, it does not mean that you should just unconditionally accept other people’s actions if they are harmful to themselves or others. Positive intention is the same in this respect. Positive intention does not mean that other people’s harmful actions should just be accepted. Rather, it allows us to adopt a more well-rounded perspective and allows us to take a less reactive stance.
Related Concepts: Hanlon’s Razor
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.”
“Never attribute to negative reasons that which can be explained by other causes.”
Hanlon’s Razor is a principle related to the idea of positive intention. However, it does not deny the idea that people have ill-intentions. Hanlon’s Razor basically suggests we should assume that people make transgressions due to ignorance rather than bad intentions, unless there is reason to believe there were ill-intentions. The concept of Hanlon’s Razor doesn’t reject bad intentions outright. Yet, it does make the case that we shouldn’t rush to judgment about the motivations of others.
Hanlon’s Razor can be helpful because it can save us the stress and negative emotions that come with assuming ill-intentions. For example, let’s say someone is driving on the free-way and another driver cuts him or her off. The automatic thought response might be to get angry and yell at the incompetent driver. However, the principle of Hanlon’s Razor says that the driver who merged lanes probably didn’t realize how close the other driver was, and made the choice out of ignorance rather than malice. Hanlon’s Razor can also be helpful in the domain of communication. For instance, someone you work with might continuously do an action that annoys you or gets under your skin and you might assume they are doing it intentionally. However, in reality they might be doing it unintentionally and might not realize that it bothers you. This opens the door for communication and allows you to express your feelings to your co-worker. Hanlon’s Razor can be a useful tool when interpreting the behavior of others and it can save us from unnecessary unpleasant emotions.