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The Difficulty with "Assume Best Intentions"

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

I used to use "Assume best intentions" as a guideline in my classrooms. It made sense at time time. My goal, looking back, was to diffuse tension and avoid conflict when possible. (I am personally very conflict-averse.) It took me time, and learning the VISIONS, Inc. model and guidelines, to 1) become more comfortable with disagreement, and 2) to understand why the privileging of intent over impact was so deeply problematic.

Over the past years, I've increasingly seen organizations adopting guidelines or norms for group discussions and for having conversations. After seeing firsthand the risks of not having them in place, I began adopting them in my classroom teaching. Strong group norms can enable difficult conversations and can strengthen the cohesiveness of a group. Ideally, they create a container that disrupts business-as-usual power dynamics, enabling different voices to contribute to the conversation-- including those of people with marginalized identities.

However, not all group norms are created equal. While some can ensure that a conversation remains respectful (we like one that we use that says "It's okay to disagree; it's not okay to shame, blame, or attack self or others"), certain group norms can reproduce problematic power dynamics and undermine efforts toward accountability. A group norm like "assume best intentions" with no attention paid to impact does exactly that-- it offers a frame to excuse problematic behavior because it was not openly malicious, without creating any opportunity to share and discuss impact.

Let me offer and example that I sometimes give in workshops. If a colleague stomps on my foot really hard, and her first reaction is for me to not hold her accountable because she says "oh no-- I'm not a foot stomper!", then the likely result will be that I lose trust in her and stay away from her (and rightly so). She's just made it all about her, her intentions, and her not wanting to view herself as a bad person. From my perspective, this is someone to stay away from-- she doesn't care about my experience nearly as much as she cares about her self-image as a "good person." Alternatively, if she instead says to me -- "I'm sorry, I see that I hurt you. How can I help?" the possibilities immediately become different.

Applied to anti-oppression work, if this person has said something to me that I find hurtful, there is a world of difference between the response "Oh I didn't mean it that way" and "I see that landed badly-- can you please tell me more about why so that I can avoid doing that in the future?" This is a moment of possibility- for the building of relationship, for the cultivation of trust. Next time, I might feel enough trust in the relationship to say, "Hey, can I share the impact of what you just said?" specifically because I now trust her.

Intention is important, of course-- and, for the creation of relationships, and for the fostering and building of trust, accountability for impact is absolutely key.

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