29 January 2012

The power and rewards of assuming goodwill

Each year I make two New Year’s resolutions—one personal and one professional. This year, I have thought deeply and purposefully about the resolutions that will frame my thinking and behaviors over the next 12 months. I try to keep my resolutions simple and clear so that I don’t lose focus. They become, in effect, my annual vision statements—a one- or two-sentence “elevator speech” that I can easily recite in a short phrase. For example, this year, my personal resolution is to “assume goodwill.” This is not a new resolution for me; in fact, it is the No. 1 working norm for our school of nursing. This norm or “principle” has served me well over the years, and I know it will help me bring my “A game” to 2012 as well.

I’d like to share a story about the power and rewards of assuming goodwill. A couple of semesters ago, in one of my nursing courses, I had a student who routinely arrived late for class. This behavior was not only mildly annoying and a bit disruptive, but his late arrival was a violation of the classroom norms we had established and agreed upon the first day of class. When the student’s tardiness started to become a pattern, I decided to address the behavior. During a break, I asked him to join me for a private conversation, and he agreed.

When we were alone, I said, “I’ve noticed that you are having difficulty getting to class on timeand I’m wondering why. What’s up?” The student paused for a moment, looked at the floor, then slowly lifted his gaze to look me in the eye.

“Yes, I know. I have been making every effort to arrive on time but, you see, I am a single parent and the sole provider for my three small children. I do not have family around or anyone else to rely on for help. So, I get the children up, make breakfast, get them off to school and race to get to class on time. Please forgive me, but their mother left us a year ago, and I am still trying to get on top of things.”

You can imagine how this disclosure affected me. I was touched by the story, concluded that the student was doing his best and expressed my appreciation to him for doing so.

I started that conversation with an assumption of goodwill, and I’m glad I did, given the student’s family situation. It reinforced for me the power of giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing that each of us tries very hard to do our best under challenging circumstances. Of course, I realize that this is not always the case, but I learned long ago that assuming the best of others goes further and takes less energy than assuming the worst.

This guiding principle of assuming goodwill is a positive way of living life. Earlier this month, I presented a civility workshop to a large group of faculty members representing a variety of academic disciplines. During the workshop, I suggested that assuming goodwill is a powerful way to allay stress and to build and sustain relationships. As I was leaving, I was approached by a faculty member who teaches diesel mechanics.

“Dr. Clark, today was the second time I’ve heard you speak on civility and the power of assuming goodwill,” he said. “I have been married for 30 years and, after your first workshop, I decided to assume goodwill with my wife. I used to think she had a hidden agenda, but once I assumed goodwill, I realized she really doesn’t have a hidden agenda—just a different point of view. And sometimes, her point of view makes a heck of a lot of sense.”

Ah, so there it is again—the strength and force of assuming goodwill! So energizing, empowering, and liberating. It’s not always easy to do but, when we assume the best of others, it reframes our cognitive focus and presents an opportunity for enlightenment. Wish me well as I make a concerted effort to assume goodwill in 2012—and I wish you the same!

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.