Don’t Assume Other’s Intentions Are Evil

A long, long time ago, I had a very difficult client. She was nice enough to give me her business, but from that point forward she was anything but nice.

I had handled demanding clients, but I had had few that were so short, so mean. When she called to place an order, she ripped into my staff about what she wanted. When there were problems, and there were the inevitable problems, she was vicious, ruthless, and condescending. The most routine issues couldn’t be handled without the pain having to running the gauntlet.

It was easy to see how this client had bad intentions; she wanted to cause everyone around her pain, that she was full of hate.

I managed the client, and despite her difficult and adversarial nature, I hung in there.

She sounds like a nightmare client, doesn’t she? She wasn’t.

Making (False) Assumptions

Reading this story, it’s easy to make the assumption that this client was a horrible person. If you have had nightmare clients, you will recognize some of the behaviors, which were much worse and much more painful than I have described it. But you would be wrong to make the assumption that she was a nightmare.

Over time, my continued presence and my unwillingness to be intimidated or discouraged allowed me to get closer to this client. I took her calls, and I was never argumentative or combative. I hung around her facility and made sure what we were doing was really working and, despite her constant foul mood and temper, we were doing good work for her and her team.

One day I found myself in her office. We were communicating, perhaps for the first time. I did nothing to make a breakthrough in our relationship, except perhaps simply being present.

It was then that she described to me her situation. Her husband was in the hospital dying of cancer. She was working ten hours a day at her job, and then going to the hospital to see her husband. Most nights, she slept and showered at the hospital. Her husband had just undergone a number of painful surgeries, and the end was drawing near—but it was dragging on and she was watching him suffer through his final days. All of this, while her business challenges and demands were growing beyond anything she could control.

Had you made the assumption that she was a nightmare client, you would have been wrong. This is not to say that I was anywhere near empathetic enough to pick any of this up before she told me her story; I wasn’t. I was young and it was a big account. This was long before I would have considered firing a nightmare client.

If You Are Going To Assume

It is dangerous to assume that you know why other people behave the way that they do. You may believe that they mean you harm, that they want to hurt you, or that they have evil intentions. But these are negative intentions that you are assigning to the other person; their behavior may have nothing to do with their real intentions.

If you are going to make assumptions, make the assumptions that you would want others to make when they come across some of your bad behavior, like when you are in a foul and crooked mood or when you are short-tempered and snap at them.

Make the assumption that the other person’s intentions aren’t represented by their behavior. Assume instead that they may be struggling with some issue that is preventing them from being their best self. Err on the side of believing that they are under strain, and that they are doing the best they can with the limited resources that they have available, including the emotional bandwidth to handle everything that life is throwing at them.

Assume that there is more to the story than the behavior you are witnessing, and that the rest of the story isn’t known to you. Assume that it is there and that, if know, would explain a lot of the behavior.

Making the assumption that other’s intentions aren’t evil allows you to change how you handle your interactions with them. And by changing yourself, you can sometimes change the other person.

And hope like Hell that others will extend you this same courtesy later–when you most need it.


Is your behavior always aligned with your intentions?

When you are overwhelmed, are you always the best version of yourself, or are you something less?

How do you empathize when you don’t know all of what another person may be going through?

How do your relationships and results benefit when you assume that other people’s intentions aren’t evil?

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  • Leanne HoaglandSmith

    What is the old saying about what happens when we “assume”? The older I have become the more open I have become to recognizing the signs that others have ignored. Behaviors are generally a reflection of beliefs and beliefs are the sum total of our experiences.

    Thanks for sharing and reminding others that life is all about us as individuals.

    I am reminded of Pres. Teddy Roosevelt quote more often than not:  “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Leanne! Whats the old saying about with age comes wisdom? 


  • Mark Cummuta (@TriumphCIO)

    Wow! What a simple yet powerful method to handle this relatively frequent situation! I’ve had clients act very similar to how you described your client. In one case, my team & I suspected something bigger was going on but we couldn’t “see” what it was. We had a team member quit because of the abusive, irrational behavior, which gave me a requires need to address the problem. And similar to your story, it was a significant issue at home combined with the stress of the firm’s growing success. In short, “evil” or even just “mean” had nothing to do with their real personality – it was stress.

    Great post!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Simple? yes. Easy? No. I think that stress is at the rot of many or most of the behaviors that look like something that they are not. Most of the time, there is an internal struggle. It reminds about how dangerous it is to try to save someone from drowning; they’re struggle against themselves causes them to sometimes hurt the person trying to help them. 


  • Charles H. Green

    An assumption is a pre-meditated resentment.  All too often we assume that others’ intentions are bad, while rarely feeling that our own intentions are at fault.  It’s good to remember that hardly anyone finds their own intentions to be faulty. 

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Pre-meditated resentment? Ouch! Our amazing ability to rationalize our own behavior while being unable to do so for others is remarkable, isn’t it? 

      I have to remind myself to ask the question: What are they going through that’s causing that behavior? It’s difficult, but worth it to believe that someone else is doing the very best they can based on the resources they have available and their experience. 

      And then, I hope I am offered the same benefit of the doubt!

  • Mike Kunkle

    Very insightful post, Anthony.  I’ll share a personal story in the same vein.

    I once worked in a department with two other leaders, all at the same level, running different parts of the department, which was spread across the country. We reported to the same person, but all three of us were in different locations, too, and all had *very* different personalities.

    As you might imagine, it was strained for awhile. It was compounded by being a stressful time where we were building something from nothing under the pressure of making a difference quickly in real-world performance.

    Charles’ comment that an assumption is a premeditated resentment is spot on. Emails were “coming across wrong,” comments were taken out of context, emotions ran high, and we just weren’t working well together.

    Fatefully, we ended up together at our HQ location for some planning sessions, and went out together for dinner and drinks afterward. After dinner, in a smoky bar, with a few drinks in, we started to tackle the relationship issues, differences, and the strain. We ended up with three simple words that changed everything. “Assume good intent.” That was eight years ago, and not only did it completely change our approach with each other and lead to very effective working relationships, it changed my career and personal life for the better.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Powerful words indeed, Mike! About three years ago, I made the some commitment my New Year’s Resolution: Assume good intent (or at least not evil). It has made my professional and personal life more than most anything else.

      • S. Anthony Iannarino

        Even though I am still not as proficient as I want to be!

  • Keri at Idea Girl Media


    A few reminders and even a lesson.

    Thank you for your insightful words!


    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks, Keri. It’s always nice to be reminded before you need to be reminded. 

  • Devon

    You make a great point, Anthony. We all know what assuming makes for… Thanks for sharing.