Flipping Assumptions: Innocent until proven guilty, or not?

November 15, 2023

Cartoon-ish fingers point in circles at each other

When an uncomfortable interaction with someone else riles us up, it is natural to want to make sense of it. Why would someone act that way? Because they are mean! Cruel! Unreasonable! Arghhhh!!! We quietly scream this familiar internal refrain, and – uh oh – there it is, the pesky attribution problem once again. We jump to conclusions about a person’s character without considering the circumstances behind their irksome behaviour.

This way of thinking is less than ideal, as it leaves no room for reason. The judgment establishes itself without a logical line of thought, driven by emotions to a negative read on the situation. This cascades into escalation, impaired communication, bias and inflexibility…culminating in long-term consequences that get increasingly difficult to untangle.

Fortunately, with persistence and a healthy dose of hope, we find that approaching our antagonist can help us understand their perspective. With an attitude of curiosity, listening to their side of the story can help us soften our hardened stance.

That said, an open conversation isn’t always possible. In some circumstances, the other person might have left the picture or become unapproachable, in some way or another. Alone with our thoughts, how do we make sense of the situation in the best way possible?

When was the last time you had an uncomfortable interaction? Did it replay in your head afterwards – for hours, days, even weeks? With each replaying of the moment, how did it feel? Did your idea of what happened become immutable?

When our emotions intertwine with a sense of defensiveness, projecting guilt outward is usually the result. Placing blame on others can be a way to make meaning of an uncomfortable situation. Sometimes this may be accurate, but a lot of times it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. So if we are going to be conjuring scenarios in our heads to try and explain why someone did what they did, why not try and put a positive spin on it?

A helpful way to flip the assumption of guilt to a consideration of innocence is to ask yourself the following when frustrated with another person in conflict:

What would make a good person do what they did?

Perhaps stress from another aspect of their life was distracting them. Or maybe pressure from time constraints didn’t allow them to show up as their best self. Maybe they had a bad night’s sleep. Maybe they just received some bad news.

Whether this generous allowance is true or not, it is an approach that tempers the biological defensive response that can otherwise take over. As a result, we shift from problematic escalation that arises from negative assumptions to approaching conflicts with openness and a willingness to engage in dialogue – dealing with what’s present rather than an idea in our heads.

A person with thought bubbles showing the consideration of replay, rewind, and fast forward

We don’t exactly have clear rules to indicate what’s normal for people to act in everyday life decisions. Instead of having traffic signs dictating the speed at which we should live, we have things like culture and personal identity as our guideposts.

We also have preferences, we have styles, we have strengths, we have weaknesses…all of which are our speed limit and speed maximum signs – and they’re different for everyone. We all have different perspectives, and how we act or react to something varies greatly for each of us (much like the idea that respect is in the eye of the beholder).

Most importantly, we have the capacity for choice. We can move through life by being judgmental of everyone and assuming guilt…but is that the type of world that we want to live in? Instead, we can live in a world with compassion and empathy – choosing to replace that judgment with curiosity.

What would make a good person do what they did? When flipping the attribution problem on its head with this question, remember that life choices are complex and nuanced. All of us would like to be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

Try to catch moments where you’re ascribing meaning to someone else’s character rather than their circumstances. Extend the openness that you wish others would grant to you. This is how we set examples for each other in establishing a more positive default in our communities and culture.

In a sense, our advice today is as simple as the age-old saying treat others as you would like to be treated. But as it often goes, the simplest things are not always the easiest ones. And while imagining circumstances in a positive light is a useful strategy, it’s still less than ideal on its own. Having open dialogue is always the primary goal. But, as another age-old saying says, it’s easier said than done.

That’s why we are here to help: check out our free Conflict 101: Demystifying Conflict Through a Psychological Approach webinar). Learn about how to resolve conflict, whether or not the other party is present. With the right tools and persistent practice, we can cultivate deeper, more rewarding relationships that enrich every aspect of our lives.

Read a brief outline for the Conflict 101 course here and enrol today.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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