Thursday, May 29, 2014

Group Works: Good Faith Assumptions

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The fifth pattern in this segment is labeled Good Faith Assumptions. Here is the image and text from that card: 

Assuming others' good intent increases trust and effectiveness. Instead of interpreting "negative" actions as attempts at manipulation, insult, or power-play, we choose to believe people are doing the best they can and look for underlying values or needs in common. Searching for a better story, we find or create one. 

This is an interesting and powerful pattern.

On the one hand, I believe that there's a strong tendency to find what you're looking for. A lot of my success as a facilitator comes from my ability to set aside delivery and focus on how the speaker is thinking of what's best for the group. Looking for common ground, I'm often one of the first people to find it. If, instead, you're on guard for disrespect or a battle, then it's much more likely that that's what you'll find. Yuck.

The fact that two people have come to different conclusions does not necessarily mean they're asking different questions. In the name of safety, one person may advocate for restricted access (keeping the bad guys away), while another may promote increased traffic with minimal impedance (thinking safety in numbers, with many eyes watching).

Hint: If you can't think of a good reason why someone did what they did, you need more information. They may be taking into account factors you're ignoring (or the other way around) or they may be weighing things differently, but their answer will not be: "I just did it to drive you crazy; I'm a sociopath."

In general, the assignment of bad intent surfaces in one of two ways: a) a disposition to put a bad spin on things because of a history of tough interactions (read damaged trust) or unresolved tension; or b) feeling threatened or attacked by the person's response in the moment, either because of the position they've taken, or because of the way they've expressed themselves.

If it's genuinely a good thing that we all don't see things the same way—more viewpoints gives us a wider perspective on the issue—we have to welcome those differences, even when they go against what we want (or what we think we want). The object here is not to give a fake smile when you'd rather groan, but to exhibit curiosity—how did they get to a different viewpoint than you; maybe they have thinking that will enhance yours.

Interestingly, the strategy of expecting people to act in good faith tends to elicit better behavior in others. Even when someone acts out of malice (when bad intent was actually present) it tends to work better to assume that's not what the person meant, as it's an easier path back to the way we all mean to be then pulling their pants down in front of the group because they were mean and you caught them at it. 

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you be a fool and turn a blind eye to patterned viciousness; rather I'm making the case for being gracious and compassionate as a point of departure.

If someone lashes out or speaks with vehemence, try to understand where that's coming from rather than how it may cause hurt. If you seek relationship ahead of retribution, it will go easier all the way around.


vera said...

Dunno, Laird. I like your posts and find them informative. But this one does not make much sense to me.

A few responses:

Assuming others' good intent increases trust? Really? Evidence please? Here I've been thinking all along that trust is earned by a history of trustworthy behavior...

Surely there are more (and better) choices than a) cling to assuming good intent in the face of flat-out evidence to the contrary, or b) pull their pants down in front of the group because they were mean!

If someone smacks you with an ad hominem, is it more productive to rack your brain for that presumed good reason for it, or to recognize you've been attacked, and quickly move into protecting yourself and your group?

"I just did it to drive you crazy; I am a sociopath." Cute. Of course, any self-respecting sociopath would never ever out themselves like that. :-) (Sociopaths are not the only ones by any means who like to yank people's chain...)

Yes, good will, civility and "graciousness" as you put it should be the starting point. No objections there! But I couple if with neutrality in the matter of trust... until there is some history between us. And I don't waste my time trying to figure out their intentions... how the heck could I possibly know? Besides, the whole idea of posturing as though we could know other people's intentions seems to me kinda arrogant and intrusive. Nobody likes it when other people tell them what they are feeling; I would add intentions to the list.

Best --

Anyone here up for discussion? Come on over to

vera said...

Sorry, things go mangled. Meant to say:... But I prefer to start with neutrality in the matter of trust...