I first read about this life-giving practice here.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1
A discipline I’ve been trying to adopt recently has been the practice of “assigning positive intent.” Basically it’s just assuming that the other person has positive intent in their actions towards you, rather than negative. This has been particularly helpful to me in parenting our rather intense almost-3-year-old Ellie. If I assume that she’s doing XYZ not to drive me crazy or to be defiant and/or mean but rather because she genuinely wants to be with me, help me, be nice to her little brother (or whatever), then it helps me react to her in a more positive way myself.
Generally, it also helps diffuse the situation when I don’t respond negatively. It’s always easier to escalate a response (as in if I figure out that the intent was actually negative) but much harder to scale it back.
Example #1: A couple months ago, we were outside doing a bit of weeding and I said, “Ellie, we need to go inside and check to see if Baby Mark is awake [from his nap].” By the time I had my shoes off, I realized that she had barged into the room, shouting. Mark was, miraculously, still asleep and so I not-so-gently pulled her out of the room, chastising her for being noisy around her sleeping brother. As her sweet face got sadder and sadder, I realized that she had thought I said, “Mark is awake,” and so had gone in to greet him as we always do when he wakes up from his nap. I assumed the worst (maliciously wake up little brother) when I should have assumed the best (so fun to see my brother when he wakes up!).
Example #2: Again, a couple months ago, Mark was just starting to be interested in toys and so I rather idly commented to the air that I needed to get some toys out for him. Almost immediately Ellie disappeared, I assumed off to play. A few minutes later, she was back in the kitchen with a toy that I knew had been upstairs. Upstairs is generally off-limits to Ellie unless she’s with an adult and I started to chastise her about that. But as the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized that she had gone up there to help me by finding a toy for Mark. I managed to redirect my comments towards thanking her for her generous spirit and for treating her brother kindly. Then we did talk about the upstairs rules but it was without squashing those good impulses!
I’m trying to do this in my relationships with other people too. It’s far to easy to assume that the people we love the most are out to get us. It’s too easy for me to jump to anger or defensiveness in my interactions with Nik when really, I should be assuming that ultimately, he’s on my side, that he loves me and wants the best for me.
On the parenting front, when I sense judgement coming from others (about our parenting choices), I’m trying to re-frame it in a way that says, “They really are just concerned about me and my kids and are trying to help me – even if the way they are trying to help is annoying or misguided.” It helps me to feel less stressed myself about negative interactions if I can interpret them more positively. (I should clarify that these negative experiences have, thankfully, been very rare.)
In any negative interaction, either with my family, friends, or strangers, I’ve found that if I respond in a manner that assumes positive intent on their part, it helps to move the interaction in a positive direction.
More times than not, I assume the worst and act according. But every day, I’m trying to respond with a gentle answer, assuming the positive intent of the other, and it’s helping me to become a better parent, wife, and friend.