Understanding A Younger Generation: Assuming Positive Intent
I walked into our family room, and there he was.
My 18-year-old son Louis — slopped out on the leather couch with his shoes on. There were two slices of cheddar cheese behind his head on the arm rest, with no plate. There were opened bags of snacks and a couple of empty water bottles haphazardly thrown on the floor. He had an entire roll of paper towels as a napkin. He was completely absorbed in the laptop he had propped up on his belly.
This didn’t look good.
What could he be doing on that laptop that was so important that he didn’t see the mess he had created? My leather couch had been vandalized, and I felt disrespected. My mind went wild with shock, anger, and disappointment but I bit my tongue.
Intuitively I knew that this was a moment that needed to be captured on film. I took a picture of the scene and shared it in a workshop I gave a few short weeks afterwards. I asked the audience members to describe the impression that they got from the picture.
Among the responses: he looks self-involved, he’s being selfish and he’s clearly lazy. Someone said they could tell he was a typical, unmotivated teenager, and that they would never hire him. Some even judged my parenting skills.
Here is what really happened when I walked into our family room and saw that scene.
Rather than freak out over the mess he made, I quietly asked him a simple question: “Louis, what are you doing?”
“I’m designing a skateboard for my sister for her birthday,” was his reply.
My anger, frustration, and disappointment evaporated.
Self-involved? Not so much.
Creative, inspired, and caring about others? Absolutely.
All of a sudden, the mess around him didn’t matter so much. My response was, “Here’s a plate for the cheese. Show me what you’re working on.”
I could have easily berated my son for trashing the room, but I would have missed the amazing project he was working on. Instead of seeing laziness, I got to experience how kind my son could be. I saw potential.
When I work with senior executives and entrepreneurs, one of the issues that invariably arises is the disappointment and frustration they experience with one or more of their team members. What comes up is the notion that each of us has a dialogue that runs in our minds about every single person we come across. That dialogue interprets the experiences we have with others and paints a picture that is difficult to undo. This dialogue can play havoc with our interactions and relationships and create toxic exchanges that are nearly impossible to repair. Pay attention to your inner dialogue.
What is it that you’re thinking about the person in front of you? If there is a trace of negative judgement, clean that up before you engage with them. The most successful individuals suspend their judgement until they have collected enough thorough data to establish an opinion. I invite you to replace your immediate judgement with curiosity, interest, and the instinct to ask questions to learn about the people in your world. The idea is to assume positive intent. It’s a powerful tool that will have a profound effect on your leadership and your relationships. Give it a try!
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