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The Benefit of the Doubt

woman with her hands up protectivelyDo you sometimes doubt the good intentions of other people? Does it seem like sometimes people are out to get you? Do you think they are out to harm you? I’m not talking about paranoia here. I’m talking about simply interpreting the behaviors of other people.

When someone does something that hurts our feelings, it’s easy to assume it was their intention to hurt us. In fact sometimes it seems obvious. I mean, duh, shouldn’t it have been obvious to that person that what they said or did was hurtful?

I’ve come to believe that people seldom hurt other people on purpose. Instead, they are trying to get some want or need met for themselves. Stated another way, behind every behavior is a positive intention. (Interesting sidenote: that statement is one of the basic, underlying assumptions of a psychology called “neuro linguistic programming.”)

Here’s the idea. People learned specific behaviors in certain circumstances. In those circumstances, the behavior they learned was productive and accomplished for them their desired result. Unfortunately people do not always continue to widen their collection of behavioral options. So they apply behaviors that used to work in other situations to new situations where those behaviors don’t really accomplish the desired result anymore.

For example, consider a person who tends to have angry outbursts. Perhaps this person grew up in an overly busy and noisy household where a person had to get angry in order to be heard. Now that person exhibits angry behaviors whenever they feel they are not being heard. That behavior used to work and was quite adaptive before. Now, it is applied liberally and no longer is achieving the desired results.

I love how this assumption that people are trying to accomplish something good can help us give people the benefit of the doubt. We no longer have to assume people are trying to hurt us. We can choose to assume, on the other hand, that they really are trying to accomplish something good.

If you have a person in your own life who says or does things that have a negative impact on you, consider what they may be trying to accomplish. See if you can give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that person is trying to accomplish something reasonable, but just is misapplying a behavior that used to work. Seeing their behavior from this new perspective can help alleviate any pain and resentment you may be feeling.

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