I visited the drive thru at KFC with the kids some months back. It was one of the first days it had opened after lockdown, so the queue was massive. Unfortunately, this created a bit of difficulty for the people trying to get in and out of the carpark. Or so I realised, when I found myself sandwiched between two cars, and a very grumpy looking lady started blaring her horn at me to move.
Instantly, I could feel the irritation rising up in me.
‘Can’t you see I can’t go anywhere?’ I mouthed.
I gestured rather self-righteously at a way for her to mount the kerb around me.
She wound down her window. Uh oh.
‘Love, I’m not going over the kerb and wrecking my wheels. You’re blocking my way. You need to reverse.’
Suitably under pressure, I tried to manoeuver my way out, but my reverse parking sensors started to blare. I raised my arms helplessly.
She smirked surreptitiously. ‘Look lady, I’m a lorry driver. I know what I’m doing, I’ll direct you out.’
And so, slowly, and painfully, I did a 50 point turn with the whole place watching.
By this stage, I was seething. But then she had the cheek to say, ‘Try not to block any other customers now, won’t you?’
The steam was coming out my ears by now. But just as the frustration bubbled over, Zoë piped up, ‘Wasn’t that so kind of that woman to take the time to help us out?’
It reminded me of the question that changed my life a few years back. The question that helped me to begin refusing to be ruled by my own exacting standards or expecting the same from others.
What would happen if I assumed the best?
What would happen if I gave this person the benefit of the doubt?
Or, put another way, what is the most generous assumption I can make about this person right now?
Let me tell you, I was not feeling generous towards that woman at KFC. But in her childlike simplicity, Zoë reminded me in that moment that I could at least be hypothetically generous.
So… what if this woman’s general manner just happened to be brusque, and she was actually being helpful?
Hmm, that was perhaps a bit of a stretch.
But what if she was late to an appointment already and my lack of basic observational skills (and spatial awareness) was stressing her out? Yes, that was more likely. Ok, I’d probably feel the same in that situation. So I just need to breathe and let it go.
You see the difference the question makes? In your head it transforms someone from being rude and ignorant to harassed and stressed. That may or may not be the case, but starting from the positive helps you deal with the situation in a much more constructive way.
Are you finding yourself scratching your head or frustrated by the way someone is acting?
You might not be feeling like giving them the benefit of the doubt, but you could start with a hypothetical question.
For example, if someone overtakes you on the motorway at what you consider to be a dangerous speed, your first reaction will often be, ‘How irresponsible!’ (That’s the clean version). I wonder would you feel differently about their behaviour if you discovered they had an injured person in the car or were rushing to hospital to visit a dying relative? You’d find yourself praying for them rather than glaring at them.
Or, if you need an employee to answer an urgent work matter and they aren’t picking up, instead of getting annoyed or frustrated you could think, ‘Well, to be generous I might assume that this person had a family emergency and therefore couldn’t respond to me when I needed them to. I wonder are they ok?’ Now you’re concerned instead of cross.
Or perhaps your friend continually cancels meet-ups last minute, and you assume they can’t be bothered. I wonder if you knew they’d been suffering from panic attacks for months, and hadn’t plucked up the courage to tell anyone yet? Instead of taking it personally, you’d be asking them what you could do to help, wouldn’t you?
See how simply asking the right question could change the whole dynamic of the situation, as well as your own mood, at least until you find out what’s really going on?
Maybe it’s time to stop evaluating people based on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are. As Brené Brown puts it, our lives immediately become better when we “work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” This assumption may not always be correct, but neither are the negative judgements we can make so quickly.
Everyone is fighting battles we know nothing about. If we can practice choosing kindness and generosity, we will become kinder and generous people all around. If we assume the best, we become better.
So the next time someone does something that makes your blood boil, try asking yourself that question, and see if it doesn’t help you cool down and chill out.
Over time, it might just change your life.