When dealing with troublesome or difficult situations, someone will often chime in with the advice “assume positive intent”. Sometimes teams will even bake this into their working agreements as something they should always do. While I really do like the sentiment, if taken literally as a hard rule, this can be dangerous advice.

What I do like about assuming positive intent is that it forces us to question our interpretation of a bad situation. Did that other person really mean that negative thing or were they just careless with their wording? Is it possible that they’re having a bad day and unintentionally let that out on us?

There’s good value in stopping and reflecting when we hear something that sounds hostile or overly negative. Is it possible that we just overreacted?

The problem with blindly applying “assume positive intent” is that sometimes that other person really is a danger to us and that we need to strongly consider the signals we’re getting from them. Dangerous people and situations really do exist, and are not just the stuff of books and movies. We’ve evolved elaborate survival mechanisms for a reason.

It’s still a reasonable thing in most situations to look for that positive intent. Just consider that we can’t blindly apply that thinking to every situation. Sometimes there really is a danger.