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Assume the Best of Others

Nelson MandelaI was listening to an audiobook by Dr. Jack Kornfield and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel entitled Mindfulness and the Brain, and Dr. Kornfield gave a quote from Nelson Mandela that really stuck with me. Now, I don’t recall the quote verbatim but it was something to the effect of “assume the best of others because you will help bring it out in them.” Think about that one for a second – it is very powerful!

We all want others to think of us in positive ways. We want others to like us and assume the best of us. For instance, when we are short-tempered, we would like others to wonder whether we have been having a rough day or are stressed out rather than be thought of us a jerk. Conversely, when we experience other people having difficulties, do we assume the best of them? Often we don’t – we tend to make assumptions about them as a person – that they are difficult, weak, or flawed in some way. In fact, in psychology, this is known as the fundamental attributional error. That is, we tend to assume that others’ behavior (especially negative behavior) is caused by internal factors or traits whereas we tend to view our misbehavior in terms of situational influences and variables. THEY are a jerk, but WE are having a bad day!

We might invoke a variation of “The Golden Rule” here: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Since we want others to think of us in a favorable light, we should really try to view others through that same, positive lens. Here is the added bonus – when we assume the best of others, we can actually help bring those qualities out in them. From this perspective, it can be viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Others want us to continue to think of them in a positive way so they will try to act in ways to maintain our favorable view of them.

Here’s a quick example from my own life. My 9-year-old, Kai, hits my 4-year-old son, Torben, with a Nerf sword and Torben begins to cry. Now, let’s say I didn’t see what happened exactly (which is often the case!). When I talk to my 9-year-old, I should assume that what he did was an accident – that he really wasn’t trying to hurt his younger brother. I want to acknowledge the upset and hurt feelings of my youngest while at the same time I let them both know that I think it was an accident. I might say something like, “Torben, I know that Kai hurt you with the Nerf sword. And from that ya’ll are telling me, he hit you on purpose. But I don’t think Kai meant to hurt you. Ya’ll were playing, and things got a little out of hand. He loves you a lot, and I know he doesn’t try to hurt you on purpose and make you feel so sad. I’m sure he is his sorry and will be more careful next time. Kai, can you please talk to Torben about this?”

In this case, my middle child hears me saying that I think he is a loving brother who just made a mistake instead of he is an older brother who takes pleasure in hurting his younger sibling. I don’t want him to have that impression! I want him to view himself as that loving, older brother because, in doing so, I will help bring this out in him.

Now, I don’t always get this right by any means! I just wanted to provide a positive example of this idea. But think of this as something that you can practice with anyone – your spouse, kids, co-workers, and so on. With practice, you will get better at assuming the best of others. This can help bring it out in them – which is good for everyone, including us!

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