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The Benefit of the Doubt

by Jill Sockman

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for awhile now. I’ve even started the entry a few times, but have never gotten much further than “Hey! Do you think we can all just give each other a break?” and left it at that. About a month ago, Carrington and I were having a little brainstorming session on my living room floor and when this topic came up she said, “that would be a good newsletter idea!” at which point I committed myself that this would be the month. So, thick is the irony, and so very appropriate that I was on the receiving end of this advice just this morning…

We’ve all been there. You’re in a store, at a restaurant or some other public space when a friend’s child acts up. Even in the ugliest scenario, at worst, the parent becomes flustered, frustrated or embarrassed. But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one storm out of the room. Or shout about how selfish the child is behaving (even if it’s true.) Or made the event the central focus of the day. In general, the adult behaves like an adult in good form: deals with the situation at hand in the best possible way and then turns to the onlookers with a “Wow, Lucy’s really tired” or “I think Bobby needs a snack.” Extra patience is offered for the struggle that it is to be a child. Quarter is given for imperfect behavior. While we automatically give it to kids, how good it would be to offer it to each other a bit more, too.

If you think this doesn’t apply to you, consider your day-to-day interactions with your partner, co-workers, friends and family. How often are you instantly defensive or offended by a comment you could instead take on board in a constructive way that serves you, if given a moment and a slight change of perspective? How frequently do you get into a twist over a text message or e-mail you’ve deemed feisty instead of either receiving it in the best possible way, or lightly concluding that, like Bobby, the sender must have missed snack time, and let it go? Do you regularly jump to a negative conclusion instead of a positive one? Interpret what could have been a benign misspeak or misstep as a gross insult? And what’s more, do you then let it go and move on, or do you carry the negativity with you for the minutes, hours or days that follow?

We are living in a time of divisiveness. In every interaction we are either adding to that sense of separation or fostering connectivity and the safety of common ground. I’m asking you (and myself!) to find more opportunities to reach across the aisle, across the border and across the street to be a friend instead of an adversary. To choose the search for points of connection and intersection rather than difference; understanding instead of misunderstanding; acceptance in place of rejection.

With our every response, we have the opportunity to create better relationships and a better future. So, the next time you catch yourself about to fall into negative reactivity, can you try a different course of action? Can you pledge to offer those around you the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion? Might you pause a bit longer so you can respond instead of react and simply let a few more things go? A little more patience, a little more quarter.

It’s not easy, and is decidedly a work in progress. But the truth is that no matter what age you are, it’s hard to be a human in this beautiful, messy world. Give someone a break today. (And that means you, too.)