Ascribing Intention: Assumption’s Ugly Cousin

Last month, I discussed the dangers of assumption. This month, I want to take it a step further. Assumption’s ugly cousin is ascribing intention, or taking something someone says and infusing meaning into it based on your perception of what they’re saying instead of what is actually coming out of their mouth. Perception is colored by a lot of things: your mood, the other person’s tone of voice, your personal opinions and views on the subject at hand, and personal insecurities. Any of these things can affect how you hear what someone else says, so when you find yourself assigning a specific negative intention to what someone is saying, the best course of action is to ask, rather than assume. By asking, you’re giving them the opportunity to explain their thought process and clue you in to what’s going on with them, which can help you to understand where their perspective. You’re also preventing unnecessary conflict and negative emotion, which are the natural byproducts of assumption and ascribing intention. In the event that you can’t ask them, then ask yourself this question- why are you automatically going to the worst possible scenario? That indicates that there may be a deeper issue, that your internal radar for other peoples’ intentions towards you is automatically set to “negative,” and you may need to consider where that is coming from and why.

Experts call this behavior “hypervigilance for negativity.” It has very little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how you’re filtering what is being said. If you are looking for negativity, you’re inevitably going to find it. I am not expecting everyone to go through life ignoring every negative thing they come across, but as an expert on mental health, I’ll tell you this- progress and growth does not come from focusing on negativity. It comes from finding a silver lining whenever possible and reframing what could potentially be seen as negative into the most realistic positive perspective.

Ascribing intention through hypervigilance for negativity is a recipe for complete disaster. People often fall into this when they’re at their worst: if they’re depressed, when they’ve had a bad day, when they aren’t getting what they want from their partner, etc. This occasional behavior can easily develop into a pattern, and it’s a hard one to break because it goes hand in hand with feeling victimized and like the world is out to get you. If you fail to recognize your role and accept responsibility, you get caught up in the idea that you have no control and things just “happen” to you. This is rarely the case. You have more power than you realize. By simply asking instead of assuming and ascribing intention, you are taking control of the situation by admitting that you don’t know everything and allowing the other person to provide you with the information you need to reframe the situation and look at it from a more positive perspective.

2 Responses to “Ascribing Intention: Assumption’s Ugly Cousin”

  1. JoAnne Bandy on

    So true Sarah! I also have experienced difficulty in understanding people who speak implicitly, especially those who verbalize in the passive voice. At those times I have repeated the speakers words back to them and asked for clarification. Just wish folks could say what they mean and mean what they say!

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    • Sarah Hoskens on

      That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Sometimes people don’t realize the way what they’re saying comes across, and they may have no idea your perception of what they said is different from how they believe they said it.

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