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Positive Intention – Does every behaviour really have one?

Every behaviour has positive intention
Table of Contents

I had this friend in college, who had a habit of complaining constantly. She would complain about almost anything and everything. The manner in which she complained was such that she was generally the focus of attention in social gatherings.

I kept wondering why was she behaving the way that she did?

On observing her closely, I noticed that her behaviour of complaining was unconsciously fulfilling her need for getting attention and support from friends. In other words the positive intention behind her complaining was getting attention & feeling supported. (On subsequent conversations with her, this understanding was validated.)

So what do we mean by Positive Intention?

Positive intention or Secondary Gain or Payback as some people call it, is the conscious or unconscious benefit we derive of any behaviour.

One of the presuppositions of NLP is that every behaviour, good or bad, has a positive intention.

For whom is the Positive intention positive?

This Positive intention is ‘positive’ or beneficial for either the person or a part of that person who is engaging in that behaviour.

Understanding Positive Intention with Examples

  1. Aches and Pains

    Note: Even aches and pains are considered as internal behaviours of the body

    There are people who suffer from aches and pains for years, sometimes they are chronic. In many cases, there is no medical issue behind it; in other words, they are psychosomatic.

    For some of them, when their loved ones spend time with them, they get better and their health improves. However, as soon as their loved ones move away, the health issues resurface.

    Although the person may not be aware of it, maybe the unconscious positive intention is to get love and care from their family and loved ones. Even though consciously the person may want the pain to go, yet a part of him/her is still holding on to it.

  2. Procrastination

    Suppose I’m a person who procrastinates a lot, to the extent that I don’t begin working till the last minute before the deadline. When I finally start working, I worry and panic and get exhausted. Yet, despite knowing that, I still have the pattern of procrastinating work.

    Now, why would I procrastinate even when I know that it will cause me stress in the end?

    It might be the fact that the last minute completion makes me feel a sense of achievement and pride, and I may even enjoy the ‘drive’ of the last-minute panic.

    So the positive intention in my head could be something like, ‘Look I made it in spite of the very little time! I’m proud of myself!’

    In short, this behaviour of procrastination is giving me something, and fulfilling an unconscious motivation that I have, which is the feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Note: these are just examples of positive intention behind pain & procrastination, different people may have different positive intentions behind same behaviour.

So should we Focus on Positive Intention or on Behaviour?

There is a common expression ‘focus on the intention, not the behaviour’.

This is true when you wish to change the behaviour, but the problem is that people use this expression to justify a behaviour. They keep using the same behaviour, that creates certain problems, again and again but try to cover it up by saying “my intention was positive”.

When I hear this expression, my response is, really?

Just because there is positive intention, it does not mean that the behaviour is appropriate or helpful (for myself or for others).

So in the above example, the behaviour is still causing me more harm than good, because it makes me feel anxious and stressed, thus adversely affecting my health.

To explain this in a simple way, the positive intention behind a thief robbing a bank may be to feed his family or to become rich, yet the behaviour of stealing (moral values aside) may actually end up doing more harm because he might end up in jail and his family members and children might be left to fend for themselves.

Just because there is a positive intention, it does not mean that the behaviour is appropriate or completely helpful.

The truth is that at times the same behaviours (which have positive intention) can actually be harmful or destructive to self or others. It is for this reason that we need to change these behaviours, though the positive intention can make this change difficult.

That brings us to the question, how to change a behaviour that is driven by a positive intention?

Creating Sustainable Change in Behaviours

Change begins with a realisation that a particular behaviour is not the only way to fulfill a positive intention.

Taking the example of procrastination used earlier: 

I may procrastinate work because a part of me has the positive intention of having a sense of pride and accomplishment. Yet the behavior of procrastination (which is creating pain or stress) may not be the best way to fulfill the positive intention. Also this positive intention can be achieved through alternate behaviours. For instance, I may start feeling proud and accomplished by

  • having done the work before time, or
  • by creating more positive and healthy challenges in my work.

These new behaviours not only help in fulfilling the positive intention of a part but they do this without creating a problem for other parts.

So the solution lies in finding an alternate behavior which is healthy and productive to fulfill the same positive intention.

Therapists Niche

Case study on Positive Intention related to Smoking

Let’s take the example of a client that I had.

This client had a conflict between two objectives (parts). Her first objective was to quit smoking so that she could live healthy, and the other one was to manage stress and relax.

Now the problem was, every time she felt stressed, in order to manage her stress, she smoked. So her second objective was interfering with her first objective.

In other words, the part of her which was causing the behavior of smoking was obviously creating a problem for the part of her which wanted to stay healthy. This happens because for the former part, the only way known to manage stress was to smoke.

Steps for Changing Behaviour / Habit: Smoking

  1. Becoming aware of the positive intention behind behaviour

    The first step one needs to take for changing a behaviour it to identify the positive intention that the behaviour is trying to fulfill. This can be done with the help of effective questioning. NLP Meta Model questions in combination with motivational interview technique can be very effective for identifying Positive Intention.

    Sometimes the positive intention is hidden so deep into the unconscious that the above techniques may not be enough. Hypnotherapy and NLP based Techniques that can be used to identify unconscious positive intention include:

    • N-Step Reframing
    • Parts integration
    • Corrective Therapy
    • Self validation and integration therapy (SVIT)
    • Other delayering techniques like void management, Metaphors…
  2. Identifying alternate behaviours to fulfill positive intention

    Once she was aware of this positive intention behind her behavior of smoking, the next step for her was to achieve a negotiation with herself. By negotiation we mean “a middle ground”, wherein both the positive intentions of staying healthy and managing stress were met without creating conflict for other parts. So for her, as we discovered, the healthy, alternative behaviours for managing stress (instead of smoking) were:

    • Exercising
    • Deep breathing (specially while experiencing stress)
    • Painting
    • Listening to music
  3. Condition new behaviour

    The next step was to create a strong association in her mind between the existing positive intention and the new healthy behaviours. (We use hypnosis for this as hypnosis is the most powerful change process we have come across.)

  4. Overcoming other hurdles

    Finally, we worked on dealing with other reasons (like sleep cycle, motivation) that may have made the application of new behaviours difficult. She was then made to rehearse the new behaviours both mentally (using hypnosis) & behaviourally so that the new behaviours became just like natural habits.

All these aided in her quitting smoking since she was no longer dependent on it.


Making it easier to change behavior begins with identifying the positive intention and looking for alternate behaviours to fulfill the same.

Addressing the Positive intention behind the behaviour or habit is also the key for minimizing the chances of relapses. It is for this reason that we highly recommend psychologists and other mental health professionals to develop skills to work with unconscious positive intentions.

If you are a physical or mental health practitioner, we would highly recommend our Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy™ program.

If you are a coach or a trainer and would like to help your coachees or participants change habits and persistent behaviours, you would really benefit by enrolling for the Cognitive Hypnotic Coaching™ Program.