One of the guiding principles of my life is to assume that people have good intentions in what they do and say. That means that people are doing the best the can with what they know, and given their life experiences/culture. I’ve found that doing this allows me to easily straighten out misunderstandings, to listen with an open mind, and to learn from others. I find that almost every time I think someone is going something to be mean, unkind, or ignorant, they didn’t mean it the way it came across, or were missing some information that would straighten things out. It’s a good principle.
Is this hard to do? Why, yes, it certainly is. It’s very easy to mess this up in more than one way.
First, you can slip into the mindset that everything revolves around you, so anything anyone does or says that upsets you must be on purpose. I had a graduate school friend who did this. Once I had to talk him down from leaving school just because a professor didn’t say hello to him when she passed him in the hallway. To him, it HAD to be because she disapproved of him, his dissertation topic, or something. To me, she could have been thinking about the class she was about to teach, an issue with her children, or many other things…she could have been just daydreaming. The discussion was painful.
Second, you can fall into the trap of making assumptions about motives. That’s the one that gets to me. I have been known to assume that people have some agenda that I don’t fit in, so they ignore me, or say things that appear to me to reject my input. That’s often not the case, as I find out when I snap out of it and have a reasonable discussion (or say something unhelpful, which also happens a lot, just ask my family).
Third, you can put labels on people that over-generalize them and lump them together into some group you don’t have a high opinion of. That’s where we get racist, sexist, classist, and ethnic stereotypes that don’t give people a chance to be individuals with their own motives. I’ve lived around enough different groups of people that this one doesn’t trap me as much as the assumption one. However, it has taken me over 60 years to overcome some of the labels I put on members of certain religious groups. I’m very grateful to have met people who gently point out the fact that all religions have different factions and that I could probably find people very much like myself in all of them, if I’d just look. So, not all members of certain traditions don’t want to take my rights away or hate me because of my beliefs. I must remind myself of this!
What Makes It Harder
As you know (because you do not live under a rock) these are hard times to be reasonable people. All sorts of forces are conspiring to pit us against our neighbors in our towns, states, countries, and the world. We take our assigned label and cling hard to it, assuming that people we assign another label all have horrible intentions, are stupid, want to harm us, and are the reason everything’s so bad. Right? It’s not just here in the US. Check out the UK, for example, and yes, even Canada has its factions (read the news, you’ll see!).
I happen to know, live with, and interact frequently with people who are assigned different labels from me. I have to talk to them, work with them, and read their social media postings. Sometimes, since most of us don’t wear our labels on our lapels, the back of our trucks, or our speedboats, we get surprised to find out someone we like is one of “them.” Ooooh, noooo.
Well, they are still the same person you have something in common with, or you wouldn’t like them. Maybe they were brought up in a different community from you. Maybe they have had pivotal experiences that affect their thinking. And yeah, maybe they just follow along with their crowd, because it’s easier to do than pushing boundaries or sticking out. Hey, people on your side do it, too.
The challenge is to assume that they hold their beliefs, not because they personally hate you or your friends, but because the vast majority* of people you disagree with honestly think they are doing the right thing. They may be wrong, but for their internal value systems, it’s right for them. You (I) may be wrong, too. Confirmation bias and all that.
So, my plan is to work even harder on assuming good intentions for the next few months. This doesn’t mean I won’t work hard for causes I believe in, won’t vote as hard as I can for my preferred candidates, or won’t practice my own spiritual beliefs that work for me. It just means I’m going to try as hard as I can to remember the “other” side are people, too.
I will note that sometimes it will mean I can’t answer a question, because I can’t come up with a way to say things that won’t come across as insulting. And I’ll screw up. Some things really push my buttons. I bet you have buttons, too. And when I’m tired, overwhelmed with my work, or worried about things, I may be less than a sterling example of someone living their beliefs. But I’m going to TRY.
In the end, we all have to share our world. It’s the one we have.
*Yes, some people are mean. Some people are full of hate. Some people really fit stereotypes; that’s how they become stereotypes. It’s just that I firmly believe that MOST people I disagree with are not this way.