The Benefit of the Benefit of the Doubt

In my position, I oversee the work of a lot of part-time instructors.

This goes about as well as you’d expect.  Some of them are rock stars: dependable, consistent, reliable.  Others are not, and I’ve had to deal with my fair share of no-shows, missed classes, and last-minute cancellations.

The first time an instructor did not report for his scheduled class, I contacted my supervisor to discuss the matter.  I was ready to send a curt email asking why he hadn’t shown up to teach, but my supervisor paused.  “Send him an email asking if he’s okay first,” she said, “and if something’s wrong, because we noticed he missed his class and we’re concerned.”

She wanted to give the instructor the benefit of the doubt because, once upon a time – when an instructor missed a course with no warning – she had sent a curt email exactly like the one I planned to send, only to find out later that the instructor had been hospitalized with a health emergency!  Giving the benefit of the doubt to instructors meant that, while we didn’t minimize problems, we also didn’t approach potential issues from an adversarial position.  We assumed the best, extended some grace, and waited to properly evaluate the situation.

As Christians, we could afford to give the benefit of the doubt more than we do.

Giving the benefit of the doubt is composed of three distinct actions:

  • Refraining from assumptions and a rush to judgment
  • Waiting patiently and listening when necessary
  • Assuming best motives and attitudes until certain of the contrary

You’d be surprised how much drama and how many small-scale issues can be reframed using this attitude.  Consider these examples:

The sermon Sunday was awful.  A kneejerk reaction says, “Well, the pastor tends to get a little lazy over the summer and I heard through Facebook that he was attending an event Saturday night, so I guess he just doesn’t care enough about church to prepare.”  The benefit of the doubt says: “Huh.  Well, that wasn’t great.  Wonder what happened?  Hope everything’s okay with them.  I’ll keep my eyes and ears open to make sure that if there’s a need for help or support I know about it.”

You give a friend in need $500 to pay a bill she said she can’t afford…and she shows up to your next meeting in her brand-new Jeep. The kneejerk reaction says, “I’m so mad.  How can she walk around borrowing money and then blow whatever she has on a new Jeep?”  The benefit of the doubt says I’m going to wait and listen, because I may not know the entire story here.

Your husband promised he would do that one, single solitary chore he swore he’d do.  But he didn’t.  Kneejerk reaction blows up, or nags, or complains, or says, “It can’t be more obvious that you don’t care about your share of the housework.”  The benefit of the doubt doesn’t impute motives or make assumptions.  Instead it says, “Hey, I noticed you weren’t able to manage x.  What’s up?”

Often, we kneejerk.  We feel compelled to respond immediately with a reprimand, with a warning, with a snotty comment, with an arched eyebrow. We gossip, we roll our eyes, we make up a whole narrative to give context to an event we witness or a behavioe we dislike.  We confront and confirm and complain.  Almost always, we act.

But silence is cheap and patience is golden.  It costs nothing.  And it benefits much.

Here’s the kicker: even when someone is in the wrong, even when a situation is exactly what you thought it would be, giving someone the benefit of the doubt still makes a difference.  When you start out from a position of consideration, empathy, and respect – when you don’t immediately jump to assumptions, accusations, or decisions – you create an environment where people can feel freer to be honest, to make amends, and to admit wrongdoing.

As the years have gone by, I’ve seen this play out with instructors.  Sometimes they miss classes for reasons we didn’t expect – power outages, wildfires, floods, medical emergencies, family deaths.  And sometimes they miss classes for exactly the reasons we expect: shrugging off their commitment because it doesn’t seem like a big deal.  But when we start the conversation with, “Hey, are you okay?” then the narrative changes from we saw you messed up and we are here to punish you to we noticed something isn’t right and we want to work with you to figure out what’s going on.  Guess which method is more fruitful?

Turn off your inner critic.  Listen to Scripture when it encourages you to wait, to listen, to consider.  Don’t rush too quickly to judgment or internal story-telling to explain everything that you see.  Your relationships and your behaviors will be better off for it, and far more Christlike.



4 thoughts on “The Benefit of the Benefit of the Doubt

  1. This is a really great lesson for so many of us. Even if we are very sensitive to others and cautious about rash judgement. I think it is such a natural knee-jerk reaction at work because the initial impact it has is that of inconvenience. A very good lesson indeed.


    1. Yes, that’s a good call and I hadn’t thought of it! I do have much less patience for these things at work and I think that may be why, along with me being a very duty-minded person in general.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s something I try to encourage others to do as well, as it seems so few think to first give someone the benefit of the doubt.


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