In his chapter on achieving trustworthiness (from his book Enchantment), Guy Kawasaki lists “Give people the benefit of the doubt” as one way to become the kind of person others want to follow. That advice reminded me of Barbara.
Barbara: Modeling Grace Toward Others
Years ago I worked with Barbara.
Barbara was old enough to be my mother.
I was a young woman straight out of college on my first job in a position that included writing, administrating, and organizing teams of volunteers. Barbara answered phones.
From my office next door, I’d hear her at the front desk: “Good morning and thank you for calling. How may I help you?” Her soft, sweet voice, like water slipping along a creek bed, comforted people and put them at ease. More memorable than her voice, however, was her disposition–her voice was a reflection or perhaps even a manifestation of her sweet spirit.
We only worked together a year or so, and then both she and I left that place and moved on to other things. I saw her a couple of years ago and she looked–and sounded–great. I learned a lot from her during those few months of listening and working next to her.
“I may be foolish or naive,” she told me one time after dealing with a stressful phone call, “but I always give people the benefit of the doubt.”
When people were rude to her, she assumed they had a bad day. If they messed something up, they must be struggling with something. If they forgot a lunch date or deadline, they had a lot on their mind.
She gave people the benefit of the doubt.
It wasn’t simple, however, and required a lot of strength and depth of character. Barbara learned to let things slide off her back. She was rarely offended. If someone hurt her feelings, she quickly forgave him or her and always gave people another chance. She didn’t judge. She wasn’t bitter.
She embodied the proverb, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). I heard her overlook many offenses—even my own. Kind, loving, gentle and generous, she modeled a gracious heart every single day. And because of who Barbara was, I trusted her. Everyone did.
Baby in the Backseat: There’s Almost Always a Reason
I thought of Barbara when I read in O magazine several years ago a story written by a life coach who worked with executives who had little sympathy for their employees’ actions. They assumed the worst–that their workers were lazy or didn’t care.
She told them a story in her seminars and classes. Here’s my paraphrase:
You’re waiting for a red light. You’re late and feeling stressed. The light changes, but the lady driving the car in front of you doesn’t move.
You can tell she’s messing around in the car–she isn’t paying attention to the light. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for her to start moving. You grumble. You honk. You finally shout, “Hey, lady, the light changed! Get a move on!” even though your windows are up and she can’t hear you.
You honk again, exasperated.
Then you can’t believe your eyes–the lady gets out of the car and flings open the back car door! What, can’t she find her cell phone? Unbelievable! Thanks to this driver, you’re about to sit through another cycle of this light! Honk honk!
She’s leaning across that back seat fumbling around, and you realize that she’s unlatched a baby from its car seat–the child was choking, and she’s frantically clearing his throat.
There was a reason.
There’s almost always a reason.
I thought of Barbara because Barbara would have given the driver the benefit of the doubt. “I’ll bet something’s wrong,” she would have thought. “Maybe she’s distracted with some bad news, or maybe her baby is in the back seat with a problem.” In fact, I’ll bet Barbara would have thought, “Maybe I should see if I can help.”
That’s how Barbara is.
That’s how I want to be.
Benefit of the Doubt: Dreaming Up Reasons
Several years ago, I was in traffic on my way to meet a friend for coffee. My son, about five years old at the time, was with me. The light changed at a major intersection and every car in the oncoming lane was at a standstill. Our turn.
We accelerated to cross the road when a woman in a van blew through the light! I slammed on the brakes and pushed on the horn so that it wailed its complaint. She glanced over and offered a vague gesture–could have meant anything.
“That lady ran a red light!” I exclaimed.
“That’s wrong!” my son remarked. “She should be arrested and put in jail.”
I thought of the Baby in the Back Seat. I thought of Barbara. Then I said, “Well, maybe she was rushing to the hospital with her sick child. Or maybe she was distracted and just didn’t realize what she was doing. We don’t know, do we?”
“No,” he said. “Maybe…maybe there’s a fire.”
“Right. Maybe she’s rushing to help someone. We just don’t know. She probably shouldn’t go to jail,” I said. “It’s very dangerous to run a red light–she needs to be careful. But we’re safe and no one got hurt. That’s important.”
We don’t want the world to take advantage of us or Barbara or anyone who has a big and forgiving heart. But couldn’t we all use a break from time to time? I’ve had a baby in the back seat before, crying nonstop, needing attention. I know what it’s like to be distracted.
Thank you to anyone who has forgiven me for forgetting something or making a mistake. If I didn’t say what I should have said or missed an opportunity to listen well, I’m very sorry.
Thank you for letting it go.
Thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt.
There you go again. Making me think about smiling when answering the phone. The story about the baby choking is such a good story to illustrate this point. And you know what? I find that I am the one who benefits from giving others the benefit of doubt. I don’t get all crazy bent out of shape and it’s just all around more healthy emotionally. Lovely post, Ann. So glad your being enchanting with us. 🙂
Barbara took over the receptionist role after I was promoted to a slightly higher position. I still answered the phone sometimes and I still smiled, but Barbara really, really smiled. 🙂
Simply Darlene says
Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt much as a young lady, but I try to paddle in the same boat as Barbara now. Cause you just never know.
I’ll admit, what’s annoying is not knowing if someone is having a bad day or if they are just plain mean, either way they are deserving of our willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt and of our ability to pray for them.
Charity Singleton says
I agree with Laura. When I don’t assume the world is out to get me, I don’t get so bent out of shape. When I do, when I assume that everyone has on the top of their to-do list “Ruin Charity’s Life,” then I end up in knots, not them.
Love this. Want to practice this. NEED to practice this.
Hazel I. Moon says
Thank God for the Barbara’s in our lives who have taught us things we never learned in school! May be all be a Barbara for someone as you were to your son!! 🙂
Oh, I want to be Barbara! Not long ago, I read another blogger’s post about how a simple kind greeting when she was in an “I hate the world” phase began to open her heart to the possibility of kindness, and love, and grace. Since reading that, I try to remember that ever person I encounter presents an opportunity to be a blessing or a hardship.
Once I was on my way to a family gathering, and I had made a cake for the celebration. I was driving carefully, taking turns a bit more slowly than usual. Then I realized the driver behind me was quite irritated with my pace. I kept saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m transporting a cake!” Of course, the driver could not hear me. (I wished for one of those digital message displays so I could let him know I was trying to save my cake.) Now, when I encounter someone who is driving slowly or more cautiously than I want him to, I automatically think, “Well, perhaps he is transporting a cake.” It helps. It reminds me that I am not in his car, I do not know what he is dealing with, so therefore, I cannot possibly know how he should be driving!
Great stories, Ann! This is a sticky post. 🙂
“Thank you to anyone who has given me the benefit of the doubt and forgiven me for forgetting something or making a mistake. If I didn’t say what I should have said or missed an opportunity to listen well, I’m very sorry. Thank you for letting it go.”
this is really good. my pastors now have worked in a “assume the best” mentality as part of their leadership and it has been such a change in thinking for me over the years…a very good change.