[Home]AssumeGoodFaith

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99% of the time, you will encounter people who really don't want to get into a conflict with you. If they share a SuperordinateGoal with you, disagreements are over direction not malice (i.e. HealthyConflicts), and thus should not be taken personally. They become heated conflicts only when one person doesn't have the freedom or opportunity to carry out their own plans. EnlargeSpace if you can, and remember that the RightToLeave can be constructive if only to EnlargeSpace. People may also not share a SuperordinateGoal with you. If they have other goals in mind that do not interfere with you, then most people will AvoidConflict because it is a waste of energy to engage in conflicts that won't contribute to their own advancement.

However, some times a person's goals may directly interfere with your life. They could be in direct competition with you, and there could be a limited number of resources. You may disagree at some fundamental level of morality. You could have something they want. They could even be completely unreasonable, knowing they have some sort of power over you, like a spammer that subverts technology against you. Conversely, you might engage in strategic conflicts to get what you want. PoliticalAction is almost by definition this kind of adversarial approach in the West. Remember to not make these conflicts personal, and never engage in conflicts that will accomplish nothing. Don't win a PyrrhicVictory by burning bridges you may have to cross in the future.

Some people do create pointless conflicts. If they are in an AngryCloud or paranoid, they might engage in wasteful conflicts simply because they are insecure. Thus, we must AlleviateInsecurity and DefendAgainstParanoia. This could also be deadly serious, like being the wrong colour and therefore "born a terrorist". In those situations, you may have no recourse but to fight, but hate is about power, or lack thereof, and fear. Some people are sociopaths and have no reasonable goals at all except to hurt others for the glee of self-created schadenfreude. RandomViolence? might be a fact of life, though it is a very rare occurrence in reality — how many of us have seen it first hand versus only on the evening news?

The problem is that text-based media are devoid of ParaLanguage (short of emoticons). There are no cues to tell you the emotional intent of a speaker, such as BodyLanguage. It's difficult to understand the motivations behind a person unless they DampenEmotions, and often we might project our own insecurity onto the text. It's important to remember that, for the most part, people AvoidConflict.

Therefore, unless explicitly stated otherwise, AssumeGoodFaith. An optimistic approach will keep you out of a lot of hot water — you don't want to be first person to act in bad faith (see IteratedPrisonersDilemma). Often, people really do have good faith intentions and wish to resolve any disputes amicably. Sometimes they are trying to make friendly jokes (a little jab never hurt anyone). Sometimes, they may even be trying to Wiki:ZenSlap you.

Sometimes you really are being ribbed the wrong way (pun intended). Even so, it is still better to assume good faith — the question is not one of accurate perception, but of appropriate action. It may be more helpful to see the other person as a challenge to overcome rather than a personal enemy to be vanquished.

What constitutes GoodFaith?

But, sometimes someone is acting in bad faith. We assume bad faith when one poses nefarious purpose in the face of incomplete knowledge or understanding, or in the face of an unresolved disagreement. It may be wise to respond to that, though maybe you should employ some of the other ConflictResolution strategies. However, actions which don't seem to be in good faith are often excused by the actor as being necessary, or sometimes provoked by another's action. It is rare for people to believe that their actions aren't justified. Thus, accusing such a person of bad faith is unlikely to be helpful. Sometimes a completely private request to clarify a comment will work, but public requests often go awry.

A fuller statement of AssumeGoodFaith is "I have faith that I am doing good for you." Acting in bad faith is doing bad with respect to someone else, possibly yourself if you are self-destructive. It's legitimate to state that you are being threatened; however, don't be surprised if this was unintentional. Be more surprised if it is intentional.

However, assuming bad faith may be appropriate in some contexts. For example, during war time a military unit must assess the enemy according to their capabilities rather than their intentions. However, beware inappropriate use. For example, divorce lawyers have a duty to warn their clients about claims their ex-spouse may make — house, car, custody of children, alimony etc. This encourages the client to take steps to fend off such claims, or to prepare the ground for counter-claims. The ex-spouse sees these preparations and, egged on by their own lawyer, may also assume the worst. This can lead to a bitter struggle which nobody wins (except the divorce lawyers).

Other pragmatic approaches in the face of seemingly uncooperative behaviour is to AssumeStupidityNotMalice. Be warned that whatever we assume may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We AssumeGoodFaith as a way of creating good faith, but assuming indifference or stupidity will encourage those modes as well. See PygmalionEffect, ModelDesiredBehavior.

Corollary: It is unwise to test others' ability to assume you are acting in good faith. If it seems many people are having difficulty doing so, wisdom and courtesy would suggest you consider how to better season your words with grace. Consider that a positive aspect of on-line communication is that, while it lacks much ParaLanguage, it often provides additional context.

Sometimes, in face-to-face communication, people will jump to conclusions about what you are saying and what your intent is. Unfortunately, if their first impression is that your intent is negative, it will often take some time to convince them that is not the case. On-line communication, on the other hand, permits one to:

Note that it is bordering on offensive to repeatedly shrill "You must AssumeGoodFaith, stop asking me questions!" whenever challenged — that is, to hide behind this social convention. In fact, we will assume you are not acting in good faith instead. It's better to obviously act in good faith than demand people read that into your actions.

See also


"I believe that most people who come to court are honest, decent people. Some of them who have done silly things, foolish things, stupid things. Some who ended up in a situation, wittingly or unwittingly, where they shouldn't have been, and they come to court. People have genuine disputes, disagreements over something that they bought or sold, or thought was their right of ingress or egress or entry or exit. And they come to court and they tell the story from their perspective. I have met very few evil people in my life. Very few."

(Patrick LaSage, Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Justice [who had presided over the Paul Bernardo serial murder/rapist case], as quoted in Tyler, T. (April 13, 2004) "LaSage: Beyond the bench." Toronto Star, A6.)


Reasons people stop assuming good faith


Violating the assumption of good faith

When making an assumption, it's sometimes necessary to probe or question to (hopefully) validate that assumption (cf. TrustButVerify). It is almost impossible to achieve anything worthwhile if the other party is acting in bad faith. Thus, AssumeGoodFaith is only a starting position. It is common to no longer AssumeGoodFaith if the subject does not adequately validate that assumption. If the good-faith assumption breaks down, it may be best to abandon the conversation lest the situation further degrades.

However, it is still very rare that someone is acting in bad faith. The assumption may break down only in the context of an singular relationship at a given time frame given certain circumstances in a single situation. The more rapidly you contain that situation and ForgiveAndForget it, the less likely it will bleed or infect the rest of your work and life and thus disrupt everything.

To say it more formally, in the IteratedPrisonersDilemma, it matters very little who defects first by abandoning a good faith interpretation of someone's words or actions — to the extent that it is a bistable system, the transition to defection can lead into a persistent defection-dominated state that lasts for multiple iterations, until someone once again makes a move towards a good faith (cooperative) position. The cost of persisting in the sub-optimal state for multiple rounds can far outweigh the cost associated with the round in which the initial defection happened. Instead, here may be a payoff for moving to the good faith position even if there is some reason not to. If the other party follows, then it is once again win-win.

Therefore, it is almost always illegitimate to completely abandon the assumption of good faith even if you have clear evidence the person is acting in bad faith. This is why we ForgiveAndForget, and why convicts are treated as normal citizens once they have "served their time."


If someone is acting out of bad faith, then we know they really need help. Also we probably don't want them in positions of great power. But in a meaningful way there is no such thing as bad faith — even people acting out of bad faith believe they are doing so for a good cause, even if it's something twisted like to "be evil" and thus show independence or power or whatever it is they think they will get from it (and probably do get, in some measure, though they could likely get more other ways).


See the other's humanity

If one can achieve this it supports both AssumeGoodFaith and many other things that help in daily life and crises.

If each "side" is seeing the others as humans, and in some sense as partners in figuring out what happened and what they are going to do now, any crisis or problem is mostly solved. Even if only one side can pull this off, the situation may turn out better, and will not trouble them as much as it would otherwise.

No idea how to pull this off on-line, but here's a mediation outline for supporting this:

A expresses honestly what is troubling them — the quotes/behavior, and why it's upsetting to them.

B reflects that in a way the mediator believes is genuine, and that A sees as genuine

B expresses honestly what is troubling them — the quotes/behavior, and why it's upsetting to them.

A reflects that in a way the mediator believes is genuine, and that B sees as genuine

Now, mutual inquiry can proceed about who is going to do what.

Of course any point in this conversation can trigger new responses while in process — isn't facilitation fun?

This is very similar to NonviolentCommunication. NonviolentCommunication would also suggest making a present request after each expression. A present request is something like "How do you feel about what I am saying?" or "Would you be willing to <insert very specific request related to expression>?" or, when spoken, it is often useful to ask "Can you tell me what you heard me just say?" The point is that if you just unload your needs and feelings, it can feel like you're dumping and you don't want a response, like you're asking the other person to just "deal with it." If you have the presence of mind to do so (I often don't, at least not right away), it can help if you volunteer to investigate the other party's needs first. -- JasonFelice

Compare AssumeGoodFaith, AssumeStupidityNotMalice


When this is not happening, there are still many other things a community can do, but they are generally less fun.

What happens when you face a sociopath, though? Humanity includes great evil. I argue that it wasn't anything technological that caused the death of community, it was Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was only made possible through great societal changes made through technology, but it is the anonymity and the intermediation that gives evil power. While small towns have their own problems, they are safer for a reason. This isn't an abstract argument, as the 'net is rampant with sociopaths, such as MrBungle. I don't want to ever go again through the same process of failure that we did with MrBungle, where the only option was for the wizard to decide that the experiment was over and he had to use his GodKing powers to end the situation. This is deeper than the superficial ViceAndVirtue disagreement. This faces the reality that there is a percentage of the population who are impossible without being reined in. It's important to remember that their capacity to do evil is the same as our capacity to do good; we just have to tilt the system towards the good. -- SunirShah

For exactly this reason I think we should PresumeGoodFaith?. We start out with everyone assuming good faith and this assumption will influence their behaviour as well as ours. That is the presumption of prejudice. But in the end we need mechanisms to cope with bad faith as well. -- AndrewCates


I think to see the other's humanity is a prerequisite for all good wiki communication. If a wiki lives, the founder and the community must have gotten some things right.

There is nothing easier than conflict resolution — in theory. Conflicts are conflicting interests. Know the interests, create a common view, seek a fair solution if possible. Learn to re-scale interests, if they are out of bounds. If you fail, increase the scope of the community that looks at the conflict.

Wiki only works smoothly, if we understand each other, our mutual views and interests. If we respect these interests and take them into account. Wiki is a school for understanding.

I think we should — in reality and wiki — learn to be more open about our interests and goals. Tear down taboos that hinder and facades that hide. In an atmosphere where individual interests are respected (as natural parts of our personalities) and taken into account (if at all possible) we may advance to a more social (or should I say humane?) society. -- HelmutLeitner

There is nothing easier than conflict resolution — in theory. Conflicts are conflicting interests. Know the interests, create a common view, seek a fair solution if possible. Learn to re-scale interests, if they are out of bounds. If you fail, increase the scope of the community that looks at the conflict.

Helmut, that is beautiful. That pattern is similar to my organizing pattern, and what I have heard in some teaching circles. Is it a PopularEducation? model? -- MarkDilley

Actually I have heard JohnPolkinghorne? make the same point about patience and think it works even better. Nothing is more beautiful and simpler as a concept than being patient with others, but nothing is harder in practice -- AndrewCates


NewbieQuestion?:

Are there any known cases where organizations made a concentrated effort to slant a wiki entry by delegating people to subtly edit it so that they gain air superiority in the discussion? Cf. an [article on Slashdot] about JBoss claiming [AstroTurf] in blogs.

Call me paranoid, but looking at the way the Pentagon played the press during the different Gulf Wars, I'd not be surprised to have a pack of professional and very subtle wikizens on a government payroll…

As to the former, WikiSpam seems to be on the rise, but I'm not aware of other patterns. As to the latter, DefendAgainstParanoia; besides, as highly as the wiki / blog subcultures think of themselves, I suspect they are but a drop in the bucket of "public opinion".

I think that online communication is tricky enough so that you can't fake it easily. A pentagon professional pushing an opinion would stand out like a pink cow. Not that you could recognize him for what he is, but he couldn't be effective. -- HelmutLeitner

Online communication hard to fake? I disagree. History shows everything from simple teenagers who mimic members of the other gender on MUDS, MOOs and the like to bloggers who invent a whole artificial life, complete with cancer and all. And it would not be a question of "pushing an opinion", it would rather take the form of people having a hard time guarding that NeutralPointOfView on certain pages in, say, Wikipedia: it would appear that almost everybody else would edit pages with ever so slight and subtle a slant, consistently. All it takes is a dozen people, posting under half a dozen identities each. It's done in blogs and newsgroups by businesses, what makes you think Wiki is safe? A NeutralPointOfView is a tender plant…

NeutralPointOfView doesn't exist on many topics. Conservatives and Liberals, Reactionaries and Progressives. What's the difference? The frame. You have to have a frame to converse, but a frame assumes things. You subvert NeutralPointOfView by reframing so that your PointOfView is the only reasonable one. It's not hard at all. A more accessible frame, perhaps; TaxRelief? as opposed to TaxCuts? or ReductionOfNationalParticipationFees?. One sounds better. Others sound less necessary or even possibly a bad idea. Which is neutral? What do you use?

It may not be hard to reframe, but that's exactly why it's so difficult to do it successfully, without opposition — anyone can do it, so everybody with a vested interest typically does. And the amusing thing about wikis is that it doesn't actually matter how many people are against you, it really only takes one opponent to be an effective opposition. Which, I s'pose, is why it's so important to approach such impasses as opportunities for resolution, rather than opportunities for victory, since even one person can snatch victory away. -- LeeDavisThalbourne


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