Tag Archives: Dialogue

Assumption of Good Will

Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man, who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind.  He therefore feels an equal scorn alike for the man of wealth guilty of the mean and base spirit of arrogance toward those who are less well off, and for the man of small means who in his turn either feels or seeks to excite in others the feeling of mean and base envy for those who are better off.  The two feelings, envy and arrogance, are but opposite sides of the same shield, but different developments of the same spirit.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Was Roosevelt correct? Was he correct for his day and his time? Is this possibly an statement that is still valid today? Let’s start with his thesis statement, “Our average fellow-citizen is a sane and healthy man (substitute person here), who believes in decency and has a wholesome mind.” Quite frankly, this is my predominant experience of the people I know and encounter on a daily basis. In the company culture in which I work this is called assuming positive intent. I believe that most people want to do the right thing for others as well as for themselves. I certainly want to do the right thing, that which will create positive contribution for those around me. Are there times when my actions suggest otherwise? Absolutely, right smack dab in the middle of my positive intent is my own self-centeredness and my own limited view of all that is going on around me.

A number of years ago Barbara and I took a parenting course. One of the principles we picked up through that course was to evaluate our childrens’ behavior based on what they were characterized by. In other words, as we responded to their bad behavior we asked ourselves, “Is this normal consistent behavior on their part or does this seem to be more of an exception?” If the answer was they weren’t characterized by that kind of behavior then to discipline them as though it were patterned behavior would inevitably miss the mark and be unfair to them. So when you evaluate my behavior, or that of anyone else it would be wise to apply the same test. Is this person characterized by that behavior or is this an anomaly. Let’s start digging for the deeper reasons behind the behaviors we encounter in people.

“Okay, Bill,” you ask, “so what? Why are you writing about this?” I have expressed before how disturbed I am by the rancor and vitriol going on in the public conversation here in the United States of America. Maybe it is going on all over the world but it seems particularly pronounced in my home country these days. Roosevelt begins by saying, “Our average fellow-citizen…”. I think most of the public screaming matches we see on our news stations and hear on the airwaves are from people making a living by exploiting the fringes beyond our average fellow-citizen.

I hear strong opinions from those around me, but not closed minds that refuse to listen to anything I have to say because their minds are already made up. I see people making huge contributions to those around them. Some of them are “poor” and some are “rich” but I see them working side by side to try and make this world a better place in which to live. I see people wrestling with their latent racism and prejudices trying to overcome them and accept all people at face value. I see people fighting to get past the labels and into genuine encounters of discovery and understanding. Is it flawed? Sure. Do we have a lot of progress still to make? You bet. But in my experience my average fellow-citizen is generally assuming positive intent and reaching toward genuine fellowship with those around them.

Let’s start celebrating those conversations and start rejecting the vitriol and the attempt of those who sell us the news to convince us that we are irreparably separated.



All are labels. In the arena of human discourse they are completely counter productive.  We put labels on people to pretend to understand them.  “Oh, you are (pick your label) therefore I know you think this, and that, and so on and so forth.”  Once the label is firmly affixed to a fellow human being all meaningful conversation stops because we “know” who that person is and discovery becomes unnecessary.

I have been so labeled.  I’m sure anyone reading this has been as well.  I remember being very open with someone I was adding to a leadership team for which I had responsibility.  He was asking a lot of questions and as far as I was concerned that was a good thing.  Yet something was nagging at me and I was uncomfortable.  I finally asked him, “Are you asking questions because you genuinely want to understand the context of all that we are engaging, or are you asking questions because you have already made up your mind and you are gathering intelligence for your agenda in the future?”  It turned out to be the latter and as soon as he had a position on the leadership team he went to work undermining what I thought was our common agenda.

Putting a label on someone means we have already made up our minds who they are and what they will say and why.  It’s just too easy and doesn’t require us to actually have an exchange of ideas.  Let’s get rid of the labels.

First, stop using labels on others.  Ask them what they are thinking and why.  I spoke with a friend of mine within a couple of days after the presidential election.  He was very upset. We had a lengthy conversation about what he thought electing Donald Trump as our new president meant and the results he anticipates as a result of that election.  While I don’t agree with his conclusions, after listening to him if I interpreted things the way he is I would be profoundly upset as well.

Secondly, when someone uses a label on you ask them to get specific.  If they accuse you of being a racist ask them to specifically tell you what you said or did that made them think that is true of you.  Be prepared to listen.  It could be a word you used intending one thing that they interpreted differently.  Nine times out of ten I am going to guess that when you ask for specifics most people won’t be able to come up with them.  But if they do really listen to what they have to say.  You may discover a behavior or way that you talk that is being interpreted incorrectly by them and you might actually be able to mature in some way.

If they have something specific but it is genuinely a misinterpretation ask them if they would like to hear what you really meant, or your thinking behind the word or deed.  You should be able to gauge whether or not they are open to hear you.  If so, have the dialogue and see what you can do to find common ground somewhere.  Even if you respectfully agree to disagree you have created civility and healthy dialogue.  If you can see they aren’t really interested in what you meant, my suggestion is to drop the conversation rather than escalating an emotional non-discovery conversation.  There is an ancient proverb that says, “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city.”  If the offense is there nothing you say will have any value to the one offended.  It is best to just walk away from the conversation.

I am going to do all I can to leave my labels behind.  Frankly, I don’t think liberal and conservative mean a whole lot these days.  Liberal about what and what is being conserved anyway.  I want to know what people really think.  What are the circumstances they are dealing with?  What dreams and hopes do they have and what are they afraid will keep them from living  into that hope?  I would invite you to join me and let’s see if we can restore real conversation motivated from real concern and caring into our public conversation once again.