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BekahHW for Virtual Coffee

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Assume Best Intent is not the Best Approach

It's hard to believe that Virtual Coffee has been around since March/April of 2020. Virtual Coffee's mission is to be a welcoming tech community that allows room for growth and mentorship at all levels, and to create meaningful opportunities for learning, leadership, and contribution for everyone. And that learning happens with everyone, including the maintainers.

Virtual Coffee (VC) meets up at twice a week, every week, for our regular sessions, and beyond that we have Lunch & Learns and other VC events. We've been through a progression of announcements about who we are and what we do. And we’re very thankful for the people who have shared when we get it wrong. One of the times we’ve gotten it wrong was when we included the phrase “assume best intent.” We wanted everyone to assume that we all supported each other, saw each other with an equal lens, and wanted the best for each other. And while that would be great, the truth is that it doesn’t always happen.
I’m thankful that one of our members pointed it out to us, and I’m sorry if using that phrase negatively impacted any of our members without us knowing. We’ve since updated our language, and we ask that everyone “lead with kindness, and recognize that the impact of our words matters.” We share our Code of Conduct and our Code of Conduct violation form to ensure that there’s a clear space for folks to share their experiences where they didn’t feel safe.

This was a process. When we created this script, I thought that our members felt safe because of these words. And I’m so incredibly thankful that someone was willing to tell us that this often negatively impacted people who identified as part of a diverse group of people. In fact, according to Forbes, this language can often lead to microaggressions:

brief queries, comments or actions in day-to-day life that target marginalized groups. They are often not intended to be malicious, but over time they can lead to a toxic work environment and can preclude feelings of belonging.

To assume positive intent often doesn’t take into consideration the lived experiences of people who are not like us. And when we assume positive intent, we often don’t take the time to consider the feelings of the person who is on the other side of the conversation. We may say something we believe in that (inadvertently) negatively impacts someone else on our team. We might not mean it that way, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our own actions.

In fact, when we are made aware of our actions--and every community and company should provide a clear way to provide feedback--this is our own opportunity to make amends.

It starts with listening.

  • Listen to what others have to say without responding. Acknowledge what they’re saying.
  • Take time to consider how this impacts our lives, plans, and our beliefs.
  • Apologize fully. Full stop here. If you’re interested in learning more about how to apologize, here are the slides from my How to Apologize Talk and here's the recorded talk.

We apologize to show that we’re willing to grow, accept responsibility, and do better next time.

Here are some resources, as aggregated by the Virtual Coffee Community, about the problems with using the phrase “assume positive intent”:

At Virtual Coffee, we’ve put a lot of time and effort into making our Code of Conduct a living representation of our community. That means it represents who we are and how we believe we should treat each other right now. But, as a commitment to the community, we believe in always learning and growing, and that means we might change in the future.

As part of our mission, we meet people where they are; we’re willing to listen and learn from their experiences, and we’re willing to admit when we’ve messed it up.

We’re not always going to get things right. And we’re willing to apologize when we get it wrong. Because what’s more important than what we’ve done in the past is the decisions we’re making right now to make those things right. We have a growth mindset, and we want to grow together.

Top comments (2)

andre_adpc profile image
Andre Du Plessis

Hi, Bekah. Thanks for the great coffee by the way!

I hope this is an appropriate place to respond. If not, please wipe it off the table and accept my apology for the spill in advance.

This is quite an interesting, often seen as a "touchy point". And in some cases even perceived as "treacherous" ground, as observed from reading other opinions.

For me, it often was and still is like the proverbial elephant in the room. As it gets led into the room, it becomes “invisible” to most. All the while as the one being sniffed at by the trunk of this ghost gets manoeuvred into a scary, silent, lonely corner.

Referring to the articles you mention; The Problem With Assuming Positive Intent, I can't but agree with Ruth Terry's conclusion:

I am exhausted from assuming the best of people who don’t deserve it. Unfortunately, if people aren’t putting themselves in a position to listen and learn, if they aren’t demonstrably doing the work, then they don’t earn the privilege of my positive intent. And not because she refers more to applying "Assume Best Intent" in terms of race or any other orientation.

In Karen Catlin's article Allied Actions, when referring to "Assume Best Intent" being knowingly abused in our workplaces, her words point to the same effect:

Intent is not valueless, especially because plenty of people do racist and sexist things with full knowledge of how their actions will be received. That said, positive intent is not a justification for discrimination or ignorance. Insisting that colleagues “assume positive intent” can create damaging conditions in the workplace.

Rebekah Bastian points it out as a form of aggression in Microaggressions: Good Intent Is Not Good Enough, by simply "turning the same coffee mug" in another way, revealing the previously hidden "Poison Ivy-pattern" of "Assume Best Intent = Microaggression" with her words:

Good intentions are important, but the impacts of people’s actions are the true measure of goodness.

I think the roots of this lie far, far deeper. It starts growing at the core of family and parenting.

I was musing about whether other men think and write about this topic too. And yes, they do. Gary McClain's article Your Relationship: Assuming Positive Intent is a case cutting closer to home. Yes, it leans somewhat in favour of assuming positive intent, but remember this is based on far more intimate inter-person relationships of family leaders, and couples, where the parties are (should be) considered equal.

His words,

You and your partner. Avoid assuming what your partner’s intentions are. And when you do, consider alternatives. And maybe, just maybe, assume your partner is on your side. After all, you’re a team;

ring very true to me personally and do greatly assist the very core of any family.

The gent (Am I assumptive here, seeing as there's no other indication but a photo of a person with a full beard?) that writes under the I can't has cheezburger tag, goes with a middle-way approach, which does reveal some more insight when standing in the middle of the road contemplating your options; "Should I jump for the bus, or should I rather aim for the train?".

I think that if humanity as a whole — no exclusions or classifications allowed, from infants through to presidents — does not get the foundational stuff right from the inside, the "tinkering" and "tweaking" we do on the outside is a moot point.

It's like planning, designing and building a house on a sandy beach in a hurricane belt, expecting it to stay there, unscathed for generations to come. Thinkers, planners, doers, and enforcers all ignoring the obvious while salivating knowingly about collecting vast profits from their corruption.

The way we treat our life partners and our children falls squarely on ourselves. We can't abdicate the consequences and responsibilities that come with that "partnership" to others. Children don't ask to be conceived. They have no say in the matter whatsoever. Yet when it comes to providing them with the tools they need to become "improved versions of ourselves", they often get "abandoned" or left to their own devices in far too many cases. Food, clothing, schooling, financial prosperity, etc., is meaningless and contributes nothing to their characters if not framed with consistent security and guidance.

We can't abdicate the responsibility to the caretakers, sitters, schools or greater society, even when our children are "MIA", for 6 to 10 hours per day. Not even when parents might only see their kids for only two or three out of the 24. Forget the battle of having any substantial interaction of a positive "growth-promoting" nature. Five minutes of truthful, solid, loving guidance from a parent is worth a week of schooling. It also keeps strengthening our "wobbly adulting legs". A Win-Win on all family members' accounts.

Any education system that attempts to found a person's character outside of the family realm is bound to have poor results. Schools are again "building" on a pre-existing foundation. Even at a preschool level. Humans aren't "mutate-and-go" Covid viruses. Nor are we "ever-caring matriarchal" bonobo apes, we are close in both cases, but not quite reaching their levels of elegance. We can learn from the survival statistics and methods of both as they face their own battles for survival instead of swiping it away as trivial underlings to our “superior apex predatorship”.

And I think the above equates to an almost impossible scenario in an attempt to recover within the current status quo. Parents, whether they be couples or single, can simply not cope anymore as our socio-economic structures don't allow it. There simply are not enough resources in their arsenal left. And please, note that I'm referring to all parenting role models, regardless of gender.

Unless we as a species collectively and correctly identify the causes of the problems and address them with open, neutral mindsets we will remain a society anchored in infancy. The reason I am of this opinion is based on evident fact;

  • Capitalism is not fixing it,
  • Socialism is not fixing it,
  • Religions aren't fixing it,
  • The Left is not fixing it, nor is the Right.

The way we are currently doing things does not work. We have to change. All of us.

Should we manage to stop our bickering, counterproductive arguments, and wars, all founded on "entitled, elite egos", then we have a chance. If not, well then we might as well make popcorn, sit back and watch "The End".

If there is but one thing we should all fear, that thing would be ourselves.

bekahhw profile image

This is a very thorough response and I appreciate it. I’m going to take some time to really think through the points you’ve highlighted and brought up.