Reality Check: The Benefit of the Doubt

We never really know what’s going on inside someone else’s head, do we? Even among the people closest to us—our friends and family—we can have misunderstandings.

For example, your friend says something you perceive to be offensive; later you realize it was intended to be a joke. You might perceive that your parent snapped at you, yet they weren’t even aware that their words came out harshly. Or you perceive that your spouse ignored you; then realize that you simply hadn’t been heard.

These sorts of misunderstandings are unfortunate. When we take action based on misunderstandings, our relationships can suffer real damage.

One way to reduce the potential damage caused by misunderstanding is to abide by the principle of “giving the benefit of the doubt.” Is there a way to interpret the incident as something other than an intentionally negative action? Deliberately choose that interpretation.

For example, is there the possibility that the person didn’t intend to hurt you, ignore you, offend you, or do whatever it is that affronted you? Maybe they were tired, cranky, didn’t hear you, or aren’t aware of how they came across. There can be a million reasons why our perception and another’s perception of the same incident don’t match.

While useful in personal relationships, the benefit of the doubt is also valuable in business relationships.

For example, perhaps I need to make a request—I’m looking for information or I would like someone to take action. The most convenient method to communicate professionally is often by email.

If I email a request and get no response, what’s my perception? I could perceive that I’m being ignored, I’m being a bother, I’m not important enough to warrant a reply, and they probably deleted my email. I’m sure there are cases where every one of those perceptions reflects reality.

However, such perceptions are not always valid. And if I assume that my recipient is deliberately ignoring me, it could be difficult to avoid transmitting an irritated tone when I follow up.

Without the benefit of eye contact or body language, written communication is difficult enough. Add to that a little undercurrent of irritation, and especially in a new professional relationship, you have the ingredients for a professional disaster.

In one case, in an effort to avoid ruining a relationship before it got started, I chose to begin a follow-up email with, “As I don’t trust email like I used to, I thought it best to follow up on my message regarding… Would you send me a quick reply just so I know that you received it?”

Turns out the recipient had never received my first message! Who would know? And, what a relief that I had chosen to follow up with relationship-enhancing phrasing rather than the grumpy relationship-destroying words that had first popped into my head.

You can use various phrases that give the benefit of the doubt without being obsequious. I like questions, such as, “Are you aware that …?” For example, “Are you aware that your comment in our meeting about the younger generation being lazy could be interpreted as an insult to many of the people in the room?”

There are plenty of people who are honestly unaware of the impact of their words. Giving them the benefit of the doubt at least provides an opening for a conversation.

A final note about professional interactions: I particularly urge caution with assumptions around emailed job applications or inquiries. You might perceive that your carefully-crafted resume has been ignored. However, displaying irritation likely won’t ingratiate you with your hoped-for employer.

What do you think of the benefit of the doubt? Do you see it as a valid approach? Do you do it? How?

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