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The Problem with "Assume Best Intentions"

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

I used to use "Assume best intentions" as a guideline in my classrooms. It made sense at the time. Looking back, my goal was to diffuse tension and avoid conflict. (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 problematic.

After seeing firsthand the risks of not having any guidelines in place, I began adopting them in my classroom teaching. In the past few years, I've seen organizations adopting guidelines or norms for group discussions and conversations about difficult topics. Effective group norms can help contain difficult conversations and can strengthen group cohesion. Ideally, they create a container that disrupts business-as-usual power dynamics, allowing different voices to contribute to the conversation-- including those of people with marginalized identities.

However, not all group norms are created equal. Norms can help ensure that a conversation remains respectful (like one which we use, that "It's okay to disagree; it's not okay to shame, blame, or attack self or others"). When not carefully thought through, some norms can reproduce problematic power dynamics and undermine efforts to create accountability. A group norm like "assume best intentions," where no attention is paid to impact, does exactly that-- it offers a way to excuse problematic behavior because it was not openly malicious, because there is no room to share and discuss impact.

When we offer guidelines, we use "Be aware of intent and impact." Let me offer an example that I sometimes use in workshops. If someone stomps on my foot really hard, and her response is essentially "oh no-- I'm not a foot stomper!", or "I'm not a clumsy person!" then that signals to me that she cares about her intent, and not about her impact on me. In being defensive, she's made it all about her, her intentions, and her not wanting to view herself as a bad person. From my perspective, she doesn't care about my experience nearly as much as she cares about her self-image. The likely result will be that I lose trust in her and stay away from her (and rightly so). Alternatively, if she instead says to me -- "I'm sorry, I see that I hurt you. What can I do?" the possibilities immediately become different.

Less ridiculous examples abound. Responses like, "you took that the wrong way," or "I didn't mean it that way," or "you're being too sensitive" have the same effect. They focus on the speaker's impact, they are defensive, and they close down the conversation. There is a world of difference between a response like "Oh I didn't mean it that way" and "Hey, I see that what I said 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?"

Intention is important, of course-- and, for the deepening of authentic relationships, and for fostering and building trust, and in anti-oppression work, accountability for impact is key.

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