The Problem With Assuming Positive Intent

Assuming everyone has the best intentions is a complicated matter for people of color

Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

FFor four years, Kathy has been my most problematic neighbor. I live in an apartment building in a large city, and I am not exaggerating when I say that every person in the building tries to accommodate her. No one uses the communal laundry room on “her” day. We try to keep our cats quiet in case the noise sets her off.

Kathy, however, doesn’t seem to give much thought to respecting our boundaries. She and her family have loud arguments on the daily—profanity-laced bouts that can occur at any time of day or night. Despite her own apparent sensitivity to sound — she once asked me not to vacuum after she gets home from work — Kathy recently responded explosively to my request to be “mindful of noise” on a day when I had to record interviews for a story.

The ensuing conflict upset me enough to send me venting to another neighbor, who was no stranger to Kathy’s ire. But when I finished blowing off steam and asked this neighbor for advice on how to proceed, she told me to assume positive intent on Kathy’s part.

Former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi is credited with popularizing the phrase “assume positive intent,” a form of empathetic listening that can prevent situations from negatively escalating. The concept is simple: When someone lets you down, instead of lashing out angrily, assume their actions were driven by good intentions. Your employee blew a deadline, but maybe it’s because they didn’t fully understand your directive. Your friend canceled at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean she’s a flake; maybe she really did have a fight with her husband like she texted you. Whatever the actual reason, you’ll never find it out if you open with anger. “If you react from a negative perspective,” Nooyi wrote in a 2008 article for Fortune, “then it just becomes two negatives fighting each other.”

Since then, assuming positive intent has moved beyond corporate culture into a heuristic for navigating tricky interpersonal situations. My friend, who was introduced to the positive-intent doctrine in a parenting class that predates Nooyi’s article, says it shaped her thinking on how to relate to her children. It has also been prescribed as a way to drive productivity, facilitate trust in open-source software communities, and conserve emotional energy.

It’s easy to see why the maxim took off. Assuming positive intent redirects a fraught situation while simultaneously affirming what we want to believe about ourselves: that we are empathetic, reasonable people.

But assuming Kathy’s positive intent felt like letting her off the hook. And deep down, I resented that my white friend was asking me, the only black woman in our neighborhood, to assume positive intent behind the actions of a privileged white woman with anger management problems. If I acted like Kathy, would anyone assume my positive intent?

It’s doubtful. There is little research to support the effectiveness of assuming positive intent beyond studies that show the detrimental fallout of anger, stress, and conflict — but there’s plenty of research related to microaggressions and implicit bias. To help clarify why I felt the way I did, I reached out to Lena Tenney, coordinator of public engagement at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.

“[‘Assume positive intent’] is entirely too common and definitely problematic,” says Tenney, who facilitates intergroup dialogues and anti-racism workshops. “That’s pretty consistently the framing that facilitators tend to give to participants around equity work. ‘We’re going to come together, we’re going to talk about the hard topics and just assume positive intent because… something will be said at some point that’s problematic.’”

Tenney notes that this “hyperfocus” on intent has the consequence of downplaying impact. Consider the metaphor of a broken vase: It doesn’t matter if you broke the vase accidentally while happily dancing around or if you threw it at a wall in a burst of anger. Even after you apologize, you still end up with a bunch of broken glass.

In my case, Kathy’s outburst, which occurred in my kitchen five minutes before she knew my interview would begin, didn’t just lead to a distracted interview; it triggered a week’s worth of panic attacks.

And that leads us to problem two: By downplaying actual impact, assuming positive intent can deprioritize the experience of already marginalized people.

“All of this focus on intention essentially remarginalizes a person of color who’s speaking up about racism by telling them that their experience doesn’t matter because the person didn’t mean it that way,” says Tenney, who helped create interactive implicit bias learning tools for the Kirwan Institute.

Seen through this lens, the directive to assume positive intent is at odds with our national history, current race relations, and common sense. If someone continually behaves problematically, why would we afford them our assumption of positive intent?

In certain cases, Tenney says, it’s because we’re conditioned to. “[W]e implicitly tend to value the comfort of people who are already in the dominant position in society more than the safety and well-being of people who are already marginalized in society,” Tenney points out. “That’s a choice we’re constantly making without… realizing that that’s what’s happening.” The result is that some people are afforded the hall pass of good intentions, while others — people like me — are not.

So, in the end, I opted not to take my neighbor’s advice. I decided my relationship with Kathy had grown toxic enough that I needed to give up on any ideas of being friendly, and we haven’t spoken since. My partner and I are moving to a place that is quieter and better suited to my work as a freelance writer.

The immediate problems are resolved, but I still feel a lingering sadness when I think back on the whole thing, because nobody really had my back with Kathy. I realized that as a black, Latinx, and neurodiverse woman, I am largely not seen in my community. When my neighbor suggested I assume positive intent, she was not acknowledging that, like many people with marginalized identities, I already assume positive intent an overwhelming majority of the time.

I assumed positive intent when my white, privileged neighbors made inappropriate comments about my hair. When they used cringeworthy, outdated racial terms or explained their love of Confederate statues to me. When I consoled them for pretty much all of 2016, and when they, and their children, asked me questions about race that they should have asked Google.

But this isn’t enough for me anymore. As Tenney puts it: “If good intentions were enough to heal the world, we’d have been done a long time ago.” And like many other black women, 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.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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