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Assume The Worst, And It Becomes A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy


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Kate kept wondering why her principal hadn’t responded to her email. One of her student’s parent’s had sent a note to both of them complaining about her homework policy. Kate had written the principal a separate email explaining that she felt badgered by the parent and asking him for support. When he didn’t respond, she assumed he was irritated with her for creating a mess. Over the next week, she grew increasingly resentful about his lack of response, fixating on all the times he’d been condescending or short-tempered.

Her reaction was typical. When we receive ambiguous emails or no response at all from colleagues we don’t like, we’re unlikely to give them the benefit of the doubt. A little cynicism feels both self-protective and realistic. However, researchers at the University of Georgia say that questioning others’ motives is unlikely to lead to happiness at work. Instead, they recommend shifting our focus from improving ourselves to seeing the good in other people. When we assume the worst, we’re likely to be proved right.

As a middle school counselor, I’ve believed this for years. Things go downhill fast when a girl thinks that classmates are gossiping about her, or a boy feels like his friends are judging his ineptitude on the basketball court. When kids are able to consider the possibility that no one is hell-bent on hurting them, they suffer less and connect more easily with others. They’re also more likely to contribute to class discussions, try out for teams or plays, be inclusive and tolerate differences. Entire school cultures shift when everyone adopts an attitude of trust.

But that’s the ideal. Let’s talk about the real. No one wants to be perceived as naive or stupid, and life quickly teaches us that we should be a little guarded. As the writer David Mayer notes in a Fast Company article about positive intent, we’re socialized to be wary of strangers, and we’re hard-wired to remember negative experiences. In a tumultuous political era, we know we shouldn’t take every piece of news at face value. We have to be able to interpret subtle social cues so we make smart choices about who to befriend or partner with on work projects.

Still, I think the Georgia researchers are onto something. It’s no fun to think that anyone wishes us harm or is dismissive of us. When we write people off, we close the door on opportunities. When we assume others won’t value our views, we’re less likely to share ideas. Our reluctance to participate in discussions might even silence others. Work teams start to fray and become less innovative and productive.

I’ve seen this play out in the middle school world. A kid who struggles to find a group to sit with in the cafeteria might decide to hole up in the bathroom with a book during lunch. A girl who thinks someone laughed at her during a presentation might freeze whenever she needs to speak in front of a group. The boy who thinks classmates joke about his lack of soccer skills may not try out for the school team.

This isn’t what we want for our kids, our students or ourselves. As Wayne Gretzky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” We want children to take risks, to learn how to navigate and repair relationships and to feel good about themselves. We don’t want them to let others dictate their choices or define their sense of self, especially when no one intended to harm them.

Which brings me back to positive intent. It’s not easy to help kids assume the best in others when they feel slighted. It’s difficult for adults too. But we can act as role models, helping children retain their optimism. By taking the default stance that people mean well, we’ll also be happier in our own work and personal lives.

Kate eventually heard back from the principal. He stopped her in the hall one day and apologized for never responding to her plea. “I’ve been pretty overwhelmed lately,” he told her. “My daughter had to have emergency surgery, and I’ve let my emails slide. I’m sorry I dropped the ball.” In the end, his lack of response had nothing to do with her.

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Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor and journalist.

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