Assuming the best intent

With more text-based communication as we work from home there is more room for misunderstanding and stress. Slack, Microsoft Teams, and the like allow communication without the subtleties of facial expressions or other physical cues. In a busy work environment when people are pushed for time (to express themselves carefully, to read carefully, to consider alternative interpretations,…) it’s too easy to get annoyed, stressed, offended or upset by someone’s comment. How can we avoid this?

The author of rachelbythebay.com offers some simple advice: Assume the best intent.

I’ve previously taken and offered this advice myself, though not with such concise wording. And it works. There have been quite a few times—over the last 12 locked-down months and before—when someone’s online comment has annoyed me, and I’ve forced myself to take a deep breath, make the best possible interpretation of their words (and ignore what I can’t see positively), and reply accordingly. And I think every single time the outcome has been positive. The conversation has continued positively, and not descended into misery as I had feared. Others have told me it’s worked for them, too.

Coincidentally, as I was planning this post I was sent a counter-argument, saying “assume the best intent” is actually dangerous. The argument is made particularly in reference to codes of conduct (for example at conferences or other gatherings) and goes roughly like this: codes of conduct are significantly intended to ensure a safe environment for those particularly oppressed or marginalised; if harm is caused against someone who has experienced it frequently or systematically then the harm and hurt is real, and they will recognise it as part of a pattern; the harmer is at fault, regardless of intent, and that needs to be rectified appropriately; when we rectify appropriately it’s not sufficient to “assume the best intent” of the harmer, and it’s much more appropriate to recognise this as part of a pattern in society, even if the harmer really did the harm accidentally and innocently.

If that’s difficult to grasp then do read the original article, where the argument is set out much more carefully and tangibly. The author uses the example of someone whose foot has been stepped on, not just once, but every day of their life, and now it’s happened again:

In that context, people telling you to ‘assume good intent’ sounds like they’re really telling you to shut up. That your feelings about getting stomped on all the time don’t matter.

And I really do believe they make a strong argument. But I also believe “assume the best intent” is useful; as I said, I’ve found it useful and I know others have, too. So how can we reconcile those two views?

I think in the first instance I’m recommending it to people as a tool to help text-based conversation go better (and that’s also where rachelbythebay.com suggests it’s used). There is no suggestion that people must assume the best intent—it is not a rule—and it’s always true that hurt is real. In the second instance we’re talking about codes of conduct, and ensuring that patterns of offence caused to marginalised people are recognised as such, and that such hurt is not denied.

But there is a grey area in the middle. The rachelbythebay.com article advocates for an “assume the best intent” code of conduct on Slack or Teams. That is still a voluntary code (no-one is policing the conversation in the way that a conference organiser must) but it’s still overlapping with the second scenario.

In the end I still recommend it as a useful tool. But I also know we all need to recognise and put a stop to patterns of harm, whatever the intent of the harmer.

Photo by durrah03

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