Honoring People and the Importance of Assuming Positive Intent

By Christopher Dunne

At Highland Planning, we have four core values that inform our work:

  1. Honor People
  2. Go to Them
  3. Make It Sparkle
  4. Listen

In the Before Times, it was easy to remember these values since they were taped up on a piece of butcher pad paper just feet from our conference table in our shared office. Since the pandemic, we’ve recognized that those values won’t be staring us in the face every Monday morning at our staff meeting and so we’ve been discussing the values as a team and working to tease out our individual beliefs around our core mission.

At the top of the list is Honor People. In my mind, at first glance this core value demands that we take the thoughts and concerns of the community seriously rather than merely consigning them to a box to be checked. There are doubtless many more aspects of Honoring People that other Highlanders could extoll. In the wake of the Daniel Prude protests in Rochester and all their implications for government’s attitude toward the people they serve, there are arguably truly momentous problems that come with ignoring this value. But my focus here is on a much narrower aspect of Honoring People: API.

What is API? I first encountered this initialism listening to a podcast in which Matt Mullenweg, the cofounder of WordPress, discussed remote or as he calls it distributed working. With a workforce that’s almost entirely distributed across home offices and coworking spaces, Mullenweg quickly realized that communications between team members could quickly go south for the simple reason that they were primarily typed and transmitted across the vast reaches of the internet rather spoken in-person. To correct for the potential for each communication to result in coworkers misunderstanding one another or reading passive aggressiveness into actually benign statements, Mullenweg adopted API as a company value: Assume Positive Intent. If something someone says rubs you the wrong way, try giving it a generous interpretation before assuming malevolence on their part.

API might just seem like a gussied-up version of “giving the benefit of the doubt” and maybe it is just that. But if so, I still welcome API because the concept of giving the benefit of the doubt is in need of a serious re-branding. In our professional and personal lives, it might seem obvious (maybe start with the assumption that your spouse or partner has a good point about That Annoying Thing You Always Do rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that they harbor any ill will!). At this moment in our political and cultural lives however, we’re constantly being pushed in the opposite direction, something like “Assume Evil Intent,” particularly if the person you’re dealing with is from The Other Side.

Values and positions: even people with radically opposing positions on an issue often share a set of core values. API can help us focus on those values rather than the position or tone we’re hearing. Source: Delaney and Associates.


So outside of an email exchange with a coworker, how do API and Honor People intersect in practice? For me, it’s about those moments in a public meeting, a pop-up or some other interaction with the community when you’re confronted with a perspective that doesn’t jive with your own. It’s not so much about the content of what they’re saying (which may be wrong or misinformed) but where it’s coming from. Rather than assuming they’re wielding their words as a weapon, consider that they might have deep-seated concerns about threats to safety, community or other values.

That can feel naïve to some, but I would suggest that it’s still a good practice to try to flip the API switch when possible. We expect people to honor us. Let’s the return the favor.

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