Why We Don’t Assume the Best in Others
What keeps us from giving the benefit of the doubt?
Deep down each one of us know that it’s important to assume the best in others. Rather than questioning motives or looking at others through the lens of criticism and judgmentalism, we should believe the best and give the benefit of the doubt.
But that’s much easier said than done. Some leaders are naturally less trusting (for a variety of reasons). Others are more pessimistic and unwilling to see the possibilities in the people around them. But assuming the worst or seeing people through a lens of suspicion never produces optimal impact.
So, why don’t we assume the best in others? What keeps us from giving the benefit of the doubt? Let me share four reasons, along with an appropriate response to each one.
Anytime our trust is broken, we usually build a wall and look at people with a bit more suspicion. In other words, our response is to make sure the “hurt” never happens again. While this may prevent future hurt, it also prevents future help (for us and others).
Ephesians 4:16 says, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” When we let past hurts alienate us from others, we do not contribute to the body and also keep the body from contributing to us. Growth is stifled in both directions.
So yes, if you’ve been hurt, you’ll be tempted to assume the worst rather than the best in others. But that assumption hurts both you and them. Healing rarely happens when we’re disconnected from the body. Just because somebody hurt you doesn’t mean everybody will hurt you. Assume the best and let healing begin.
All of us are bestowed by God with spiritual gifts and natural abilities. In addition, we’ve acquired skills over time that allow us to perform our duties with proficiency. This gift mix is a blessing (to us and others), and with it we can advance God’s Kingdom and add value to others.
In fact, Paul encourages us to use these gifts “so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12), and Peter says to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10).
While our giftedness is purposeful and useful, if we’re not careful, it can also become the basis for assuming the worst in others. How? By projecting our strengths onto the weaknesses of others. Or, when people don’t perform at the same level as us, we look at them through a critical lens.
In these moments we say to ourselves, “Why can’t they get it together? Why can’t they do this job, this task, or this responsibility like me? After all, it’s not that hard.” That may be true … for you. But for them, the task may be much harder if they’re not gifted to perform it. The truth is, what comes natural for me may be quite difficult for you. And what comes easily for you may feel impossible to me.
When we view others through the lens of our strengths (rather than their strengths), we’ll always assume the worst. We’ll nitpick every flaw, and we’ll let their weaknesses become our frustrations.
If this is your tendency, (and it can be for all of us), flip things around. Take an honest look at your own weaknesses as well as an affirming look at other people’s strengths. This shift in perspective will give you a healthy dose of reality and help you acknowledge two truths.
We need to descend our ladder of superiority and recognize we too are flawed and sinful.
First, your weaknesses are likely frustrating somebody else. Second, most people aren’t intentionally using their weaknesses to frustrate you. Colossians 3:13 says, “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you” (NLT).
This may be hard to swallow, but sometimes we don’t assume the best because we’re jealous of somebody’s “best.” In other words, we think their success makes us look bad. We feel threatened by who they are or what they’ve done, and as a result we assume the worst rather than celebrating the best.
That response is nothing more than our own insecurities getting the best of us. Here’s a simple truth to live by: You don’t need to tear others down to make yourself look great. There’s room for both of you to be great. There’s room for both of you to be successful.
When somebody else wins, assume the very best about them. Assume they worked hard, paid the price, and went the extra mile. Assume there were many hard, unseen nights of struggle and sacrifice, and now they’re experiencing the reward of their labor. Send them a text of congratulations. Every time you assume the best by celebrating the success of others, you’re uprooting your own insecurities.
Few of us would ever admit we’re judgmental, so let me explain it like this: we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. This seems completely rational in our own minds.
For example, if somebody is late to work, we might think, “They’re so lazy. I’m sure they overslept. They don’t know how to manage their time.” But if we’re late to work, we justify it with, “The kids were running late for school, the traffic was crazy, or I work hard and deserve some grace.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, we often see others from a place of superiority. We’re like Pharisees. We “crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:4, NLT).
These flawed expectations are nothing more than a spirit of criticism and judgmentalism. They cause us to look at people from a place of dominance and arrogance while assuming the very worst in them. We assume the worst motive, the worst intention, and the worst behavior.
The cure for judgmentalism is humility. We need to descend our ladder of superiority and recognize we too are flawed and sinful.
Jesus said it like this: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” And the apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
So, how do we proactively and practically assume the best in others, especially in the context of a team? Author Andy Stanley makes a great observation to help us replace suspicion with trust. He challenges us to make the following three commitments:
- When there’s a gap between what I expect and what I experience, I’ll fill it with trust.
- When I observe other people filling the gap with suspicion, I’m going to come to your defense.
- If what I experience or see begins to erode my trust, I’ll come directly to you about it.
This wise and practical response helps us lead from a healthy posture. It will strengthen relationships, improve teamwork, and help us see and respond to people in a way that believes the best.