THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
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.orgment, 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.orges 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 best of buddies, but we did manage to 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
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.orgplaining 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
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
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 ou.orge 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.orgpromise 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 i.orgpetent 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.orging 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. My wife can
testify that I'm not always world-class in.orgmunicating what I'm thinking
and feeling and that sometimes I "over-assume" that someone knows what I
meant to say. I'm guessing a lot of other folks are the same way. Think of
bosses and subordinates, teachers and students, husbands and wives, parents
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 soon-to-be-released
video, "INTRICATE MINDS II: Understanding Elementary School Classmates with
Asperger Syndrome," which follows a similar video released earlier this year
for high school and middle school students. You can find more articles on
his website: www.coultervideo.org.
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission