The Benefit of the Doubt

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By Dan Coulter

People can be such jerks. Other people. Not you and me. When we get upset and are impatient or short with people, it’s for good and valid reasons. If people could only see the pressures we’re under or the unfairness of the situations we have to deal with…


I subscribe to a couple of special needs email bulletin boards. People share their experiences and I pick up some good ideas on how to understand and support my son who has Asperger Syndrome. Every once in a while, a few folks throw some pretty heated barbs back and forth. Someone takes exception to a comment, the tone of the responses escalates and then the accusations fly: “You’re condescending!” “You’re insulting!”

Yes, some of the posters on these boards bring some social interaction challenges with them. But I think it goes beyond that.

More and more, we find ourselves dealing with people we don’t know – or don’t know well. For most of human history, the vast majority of people didn’t travel much and mostly had contact with the same group of people. I’m not suggesting there was ever a golden age of civility, but at least people had a better chance of understanding why someone was acting happy or sad or upset if they knew what was going on in that person’s life.

We encounter so many people now in fragments of relationships. From strangers in an elevator to folks we “meet” on email bulletin boards to teachers in our kids’ schools that we may see only a few times a year. Ever gotten mad about something and had that affect the way you dealt with people who had nothing to do with the reason you were mad? We all have. On the other side of the picture, it’s easy to assume someone is reacting to us when he’s actually got other things on his mind.

This all comes down to a simple observation. Things go a lot smoother when we give each other the benefit of the doubt.

In the bulletin board postings I mentioned, some writers read the worst interpretations and motives into what other people wrote. But others saw past the harsh words to the possible frustration and pain that could have sparked them. These pacifiers wrote to remind everyone that we’re in these groups for mutual support and to give folks the benefit of the doubt.

These are people I admire. The ones who can look past their own experience to really try and understand what other folks are saying and why.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m not a natural born leader in this area. I’ve often found myself wondering how anyone could be so blind as to not see things the way I see them.

I look back on two experiences to help me remember to give folks the benefit of the doubt. When I was a young TV director new on a job, I met a co-worker who seemed to have an instant grudge against me. I couldn’t understand it until a colleague told me about this guy’s unhappy home life. I came to realize that he brought his problems to work and I’d walked into the line of fire. I also realized that I was the only one who could dial down the tension by not immediately taking offense when he was impatient and abrupt. We were never the best of buddies, but we did manage to get along and produce some good work together.

While in that same job, I worked with an airline producing a video on “transactional analysis” to train flight attendants and reservations personnel to deal with upset passengers. The training divided interactions between people into three categories: adult, child and critical parent. When you interact as an adult, you’re working from the facts and using logic. Conversations between two people acting as adults are pretty straightforward.

The training cited studies showing that when a person interacts in a childish manner (being selfish and whining) or as a critical parent (being condescending and scolding) – it’s easy to be drawn into reacting in kind.

You may have seen emotional conversations like this, where one person is complaining and criticizing another and the other is either scolding back or is whining and making excuses. For example, a passenger might be so focused on letting the airline rep know how much a cancelled flight had messed up his vacation -- that he delays the rep from finding another flight that could salvage the situation. Then the rep gets upset and things go downhill from there.

The training encouraged airline personnel to always respond as an adult no matter what role a passenger took, because that’s the best way to draw someone who’s acting like a child -- or like a critical parent -- into also responding as an adult.

It’s easy to respond emotionally when we’re dealing with issues affecting our kids or our rights or anything that really matters to us. But we’re more likely to get a better outcome in the long run if we stay calm and deal with facts and not assumptions.

Maybe the teacher isn’t ignoring my child’s needs. Maybe she’s got a plate-load of things demanding her attention and my child is just not her top priority. Maybe learning more about the situation and sympathizing with the teacher’s challenges can help me find a compromise that’s not everything I wanted, but workable.

Maybe the parent doesn’t really expect me to ignore my other students and concentrate on his kid. Maybe I can use some of his ideas to help me teach his son and modify behaviors that might disrupt my class.

Maybe the person who made that outrageous generalization on a bulletin board isn’t a dunderheaded jerk. Maybe he’s someone who’s had a painful experience that makes him over-react. Maybe in disagreeing, my response could start, “I look at that differently because…”

This is not to say that some people aren’t dishonest or incompetent or prejudiced and that we shouldn’t fight for what is right. Giving the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean giving in. It means withholding judgment until we have enough information to better understand where others are coming from.

We may find that storming the castle is absolutely the right thing to do. But if we do some reconnaissance before we sound the charge, we have a better chance of telling true opponents from potential allies.

As valuable as the benefit of the doubt is in dealing with relative strangers, it’s a treasure to use with people we know well. Think of bosses and subordinates, teachers and students, husbands and wives, parents and kids. Think of the misunderstandings and conflict we could avoid.

We all want to get the benefit of the doubt, so doesn’t it make sense to routinely give the benefit of the doubt?

Especially, ahem, when you deal with me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the producer of the "Intricate Minds" series of videos that help students understand classmates with Asperger Syndrome and similar conditions. You can find more articles and information on his website:

Copyright 2014 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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