If you’re reading this, there may be a good chance that you’re tired of not only tasting your own foot in your mouth, but of also having to apologize for it. It’s not a secret that no human enjoys being in the wrong and having to learn a harsh lesson of consequences, but nevertheless, it seems inevitable. At some time or another we end up jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, pointing fingers, or however else you want to label it, until sooner or later we are hit with reality (and the ever-prompt regret that comes right along with it).
So how do we stop this obviously unpleasant chain of events? The key (and benefit) is that of the doubt! Unfortunately, the common phrase, “benefit of the doubt,” has become overly-engrained in our everyday language, so much that we downplay how crucial and powerful this benefit actually is.
So let’s take a moment to remind ourselves. Here’s a scenario that can demonstrate how an argument might go with and without a given benefit of doubt:
Scenario A (No benefit):
A wife and husband go out to dinner. The wife asks her husband to order her the chicken marsala while she goes to call home and check on the babysitter. Her husband replies with a grunt of acknowledgement as he continues to glance over the menu. The wife repeats her request again with concern, thinking he may not have heard her correctly. The husband then replies with a faint “yep, I got it,” as he continues studying the menu. The wife gets up and leaves the table and is gone for several minutes. When she comes back she finds her husband peppering his steak, while across from him on her side of the table sits a plate of chicken parmesan.
“I KNEW YOU WEREN’T LISTENING!” she blurts, while still standing over him and glaring into his eyes.
Startled, the husband abruptly interrupts his peppering to push back in his chair and stare back at his wife in confusion.
“What are you talking about?” He asks, while furthering her feelings of insignificance.
“HELLO! THE CHICKEN! I ASKED YOU TO GET ME MARSALA AND YOU WERE TOO BUSY WORRYING ABOUT YOUR OWN DAMN DINNER THAT YOU SCREWED UP AND GOT ME PARMESAN! SO TYPICAL!”
The husband defends, “WOAH wait… but I …”
Right then, the waiter (completely unaware of this occurrence) walks over with a plate of chicken marsala and light-heartedly apologizes for having placed the chicken parmesan at the wrong table.
[*Cue wife's panicked and humiliated apologies now*].
If only that waiter knew the path of destruction he laid out with his mistake--- talk about apologies!
Anyway, let’s take a look at scenario B…
Scenario B (with benefit):
The same wife and husband go out to dinner. The wife asks her husband to order her the chicken marsala while she goes to call home and check on the babysitter. Her husband replies with a grunt of acknowledgement as he continues to glance over the menu. The wife repeats her request again with concern, thinking he may not have heard her correctly. The husband then replies with a faint “yep, I got it,” as he continues studying the menu. The wife gets up and leaves the table and is gone for several minutes. When she comes back she finds her husband peppering his steak, while across from him on her side of the table sits a plate of chicken parmesan. [*please note that this situation is the exact same as the one described in scenario A].
“Oh no,” the wife sighs, while glancing down at her plate and sitting down in disappointment. “I had a feeling you didn’t hear what I wanted. You were pretty preoccupied looking over the menu when I told you.”
“Wait, no,” replies the husband. “I definitely heard you and I told the waiter chicken marsala. There must be some mistake.”
Right then, the waiter walks over with a plate of chicken marsala and light-heartedly apologizes for having placed the chicken parmesan at the wrong table.
[*Cue potential laughs about the misunderstanding*]
And there you have it! Scenario B demonstrates that by allowing room for error and explanation (aka offering benefit of the doubt) we not only have a better chance of saving ourselves from embarrassment, but we can also save our partners and relationships from some severe and unnecessary pain. Rather than jumping to some pretty serious conclusions about her husband not caring about her needs and blaming him for only selfishly focusing on his own, the wife in scenario A could have stated these feelings in a way that would have allowed room for the truth. The wife in scenario B was feeling just as hurt and disappointed in the thought of her husband not listening to her, but instead of reacting to this thought as a known fact, she allowed a dialogue to explore it.
Unfortunately, the more hurt and disappointment suffered in a relationship’s history, the harder it is for partners to give one another the benefit of the doubt. This is when tiny mistakes start to be seen as intentional ones with deeper meanings and messages, when preconceived notions leave no room for innocent human error, and when trust spins out of control into a cycle of purposely seeking and expecting one another’s failures. These relationships are quick to scope out and pounce on the absolute worst-case scenario at all times and a dynamic like that really doesn’t stand a chance.
So here’s the bottom line (and I tell my clients this all the time): I have a CAREER based on miscommunications and misunderstandings. An actual CAREER. And it’s the same for every other therapist out there. There’s a lot of us! So this means that there are actually enough human errors being made in the world to provide a decent living for every single one of us therapists. Take that in for a second.
Now, with this in mind, how can we possibly afford to assume, point fingers, preconceive, or jump to conclusions in situations and relationships without stopping to think for a moment that we might be wrong? The truth is, if we’re doing any of those things, we most often are. History does not define the present, a mistake does not define capability, and chicken parmesan by no means implies neglect. If we love our partners, we have to always be sure to allow them a fighting chance, no matter how well we think we know them. This alone rescues both sides from a lot of destructive pain and from a whole lot of unnecessary