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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Assuming Best Intentions

In our meetings at CCE – at whatever level of leadership, committee, professional development, Professional Learning Community, or Critical Friends Group – we strive to explicitly state the norms of that meeting. “Norms” are the list of assumptions that the participants agree to hold during the meeting. These assumptions will facilitate good communication and, we hope, increase the quality of communication going on.

Our favorite of these norms is “Assume Best Intentions.”

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Asking folks to Assume Best Intentions is an urging towards optimism or, conversely, a plea against cynicism. It is assuming that people are acting the way they are because they believe it’s best for the kids.

It’s not a new idea, either, being a staple of communications, leadership, and Buddhism. It means – unless you have evidence otherwise – assume a person making an argument or proposal or asking a question is doing so out of sincere good intent. Perhaps it seems obvious? In our professional learning communities or critical friends groups, of course we would lend each other the benefit of the doubt – assuming best intentions.

Still, this can be difficult to do. We are human beings, emotional and passionate, and we hold issues close to our heart. Questioning the motives and sincerity of someone who asks a question that seems to jab at our values (question our values) is a natural way of argument. Questioning motives and values is rhetorically very powerful. Aristotle was only the first to point out that you can often win an argument by choosing to have a different, more personal, argument. Questioning ulterior motives is natural … it’s just not necessarily helpful.

Why is this person proposing this difficult change in the way we do things? Are they trying to curry favor from the district? Are they undercutting my authority? Questioning my competence? Do they always have to do things their way? Who do they think they are? These folks don’t care about us; they just want us to jump through hoops to get grants. Admin have to do something, can’t just let us teach! Why do they want to be seen as a progressive district?

Those are examples of not assuming best intention. All of those questions and assumptions distract from the purpose of the conversation. Assuming best intention means, in this case, assuming that the person is doing the thing they are doing because they believe it is the best for kids. Then the conversation is simple: is this change best for kids?

But here’s the thing. In assuming best intentions, we very well may be wrong! After all, we make assumptions in the absence of evidence. People really do – sometimes – operate from base motives. Still, we will urge you, assume best intentions. The quality of the conversation as a whole will rise. The focus will be on the merits of the work and its mission. Assuming best intentions is an act of generosity that actually pays off.