Benefit of the Doubt


by Diana Mercer

What would happen if you gave everyone (and your former spouse or partner, in particular) the benefit of the doubt?

I know that’s a challenging idea, particularly if you’re in the middle of a separation or a divorce, when your inclination to forgive certain annoyances for the sake of staying in the crumbling relationship may already be out the window.

What would happen if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment before making a final judgment about his or her actions?

I see this as a way to take things less personally. If the grocery store cashier snaps at me, is it because of my actions, or could he or she simply be having a bad day? If your friend is running late to an appointment, is his plan to inconvenience you, or is it possible that he’s had to stop to search for his child’s escaped hamster?

The biggest tipoff is whether you’re getting what you gave. Consider a newly separated family: If I ask my child’s mother, “What time does the school play start on Thursday?” and her response is “You have got a lot of nerve asking me that! You’re such an irresponsible jerk!” I know that I asked a perfectly reasonable question in a neutral tone, but got back barbs and insults. What I got wasn’t what I gave. That’s my clue that there’s something else going on.

This is an extremely simplified example of one of the Games People Play (Eric Berne, Ballantine Books, 7th Edition 1996) http://www.ericberne.com/Games_People_Play.htm. The key here is when someone plays this game with you by responding in a way that doesn’t match the tone of the request you cannot take the bait. Take a deep breath, realize it’s not about you, and consider a response like, “I’m really sorry you feel that way. I should have written the time down, but I didn’t. I’d really appreciate it if you could tell me the time and next time I’ll put it in my book.”

When you permit this tiny pause, the maybe-it’s-not-me pause, you give yourself a chance to take in more information and give yourself, and the other person, a break.

The benefit of the doubt doesn’t work as well with the always-crabby cashier or the chronically late friend, but really works for situations in which people are acting in a way you hadn’t anticipated. And in a divorce or separation, it can go a long way toward keeping the peace. Because a reasonably contented (I hesitate to say “happy”) co-parent is likely to be an easier person for you to deal with, it’s in your best interests to choose your battles and give the benefit of the doubt when you can.

I once went to a community planning meeting, and the group leader told us a story about a time she was transporting hot baked beans to a potluck dinner for her son’s Scout troop meeting. She put the kettle of hot beans on the floor in the backseat of her car and drove like 2 miles per hour. If she went any faster, she’d surely have a car covered in baked beans. Fellow motorists honked, pointed, and zoomed around her, assuming she was just a dork or an idiot. They didn’t know she had hot baked beans in the backseat.

Next time you’re ready to snap at someone, will you remember that maybe they’ve got hot baked beans they’re trying not to spill? Maybe you know the whole story, and maybe you don’t. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, you give yourself an opportunity to understand more than your own perspective.

Diana Mercer Bio:

Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Perigee 2010). Join the conversation and community on our video blog and check out Diana’s divorce blog on the Huffington Post

Diana Mercer is an Attorney-Mediator and the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services, www.peace-talks.com. She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) and Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) and writes for the Huffington Post as well as her own blog Making Divorce Work.

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Christina Rasmussen

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