“Well, aren’t you optimistic?”

That was the first thing an elderly stranger said to me as I walked into the elevator. It is late September here in the Northwest, and I was wearing short shorts and a tank top with a jacket over it. She had taken it all in with an obvious once-over.

I told her I was heading to work out, and she said, “Yeah, I just would never in a million years wear something like that.”

What would you do in this situation?

I want to share with you what I did, because I realized my reaction to this may be unusual: I assumed she was a kind person.

So I smiled at her and explained I was going to dance class, and that it was fun for me to dress sexier because it made me enjoy dancing more.

She widened her eyes slightly as if she found that interesting and told me that she always felt out of the loop with fashion, and we ended our elevator ride wishing each other a great day.

Now let me break this interaction down, because it could have gone very differently.

It would have been easy for me to assume from her first two statements that she was trying to insult or judge me…and then easy to get from there to feeling bad about myself (“man, I’m not skinny/young/pretty enough to wear booty shorts in public”) or getting defensive (“what’s it to you, old lady?! Mind your own business, damn!”) and acting coldly toward her.

People engage with us all the time somewhat thoughtlessly. Whether it’s my acupuncturist saying, “Those are big white boots you’ve got on!” or a family member commenting on how I sure seem to have a lot of opinions on the Facebook, it seems like people lead conversations with surprisingly judgmental remarks.

Being confronted by these kinds of comments regularly can lead us to feeling negatively about connecting with people in general. But in this elevator interaction, I saw how the choice I made to perceive this woman as kind created a different experience than what we began with.

And here’s my secret: when you assume people are kind-hearted, then you treat them that way. And when you treat them like they have good intentions, they will almost always rise up to that perception.

Why? Because people WANT to be the best version of themselves.

Most people truly are not jerks—they just haven’t put much effort into understanding how they come across. People also rarely think about what they want as a result of their actions. But even though they aren’t very mindful, most people are decent, or they WANT to be decent.

By responding to them from my belief that their comments are well-meaning, I get to shape the interaction to a pleasant one that I will enjoy, and that person gets to leave feeling a bit brighter about themselves.