Updated: Feb 10
Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.
This is a powerful thought and one of my personal favorite mantras to navigate the world and define my relationships. We have all heard it, but probably never realized its full power.
We hear it in working environments or in parenting. Your new employee did not purposefully blow a big deal, he was simply ignorant to what a solid proposal requires. Your toddler did not mean to break the glass, she simply lacks the awareness and motor skills to handle it properly. In other words, they did not intend to cause any harm, they simply messed up or were not equipped to handle the situation.
This phrase is beautiful for how it helps everyone involved. It helps our mood as we understand that - in almost every situation - people do not intend to hurt us, our opportunities, or our possessions. It helps us to give grace and forgive.
Our outlook in these moments creates a more positive environment for others to grow. That new employee can ask questions and seek help because he knows that the work environment is nurturing and understanding - he will not be judged for ignorance or minor failures. Your toddler feels confident to try again and continue learning, not fearful of the wrath that failure might bring down from her parents.
While it is wonderful to practice understanding for those who are still “learning to walk,” we can extend our grace far beyond the material world. This concept finds its true power when we apply it to the emotional foundations of all of our relationships.
People are going to hurt you. They will say the wrong thing, fail to acknowledge your achievements, insult you, be hyper-critical, and generally fall short of meeting your every emotional need. You will be (and already are) guilty of all the same offenses toward others. All of this is unintentional.
Even with the best of intentions, people accidentally hurt. We all put our foot in our mouth, step across the line from critique to insult, or make ill-timed, distasteful jokes. Our default position must be to never assume malicious intent. When friends, loved ones, or even a perfect stranger hurt our feelings we must make the charitable assumption. We must assume that they were simply incompetent, ignorant to our feelings, and ill-equipped to navigate this specific emotional terrain. Even if they have proven empathic and compassionate in the past, we must assume that they are simply having a bad day and not hold our overall judgement of them to their hurtful actions in the moment. Assuming malice, makes the situation about you. In that moment, your ego is convinced that their actions are entirely about you. Assuming incompetence is feeling secure that other people’s actions, even those directly hurtful, are not about you and are nearly always motivated internally.
Of course, this is not always true. There are malicious people and even loving people can hurt on purpose. These are rare interactions. We must believe that most people are good and that the harm they cause is accidental for three critical reasons:
IT IS SIMPLY TRUE, MOST OF THE TIME
For the most part, people are good. When they do hurt us, it is usually an accident. Most shots to the heart were not aimed to hurt. They are an unfortunately well-placed misfire at the hands of a novice marksman. They never intended to shoot, much less hit the bullseye.
Think of all the times you have hurt another person’s feelings. Compare this to the (hopefully rare) instances when you have done so on purpose. If you are like me, and every other essentially good person, those purposeful offenses only represent a tiny percentage of the total. All the rest are hapless missteps.
Why is this true?
Most people do not care enough about your problems or emotions to purposefully hurt you. Sure, your loved ones care about your overall emotional state, especially during times of emotional crisis. But, for the most part, other people are far too consumed with their own shit to care about yours.
When people hurt you, they are probably acting out their own pain. When they make an accidental crude remark, they were probably too caught up with their own internal dialogue to realize how their comment would effect yours. Most people simply do not put in the time or effort to concoct a perfectly crafted insult. When it appears they did, they probably just got lucky.
Assuming that someone intended to hurt you perfect exemplifies what we consider “wrong thinking.” This is emotional reasoning - deeming your individual emotional response as objective fact. This is also fortune-telling and catastrophizing - assuming another person’s intent then inflating it to the level of crisis. These are symptoms of depression but these lines of thinking are a two-way street. The same behaviors and thought patterns that flow from clinical depression can also be pathways leading to a depressive state. These are the defining values of “call-out culture” and the modern social justice movement.
Do not take this as a pessimistic view of people. We are not bumbling idiots leaving a trail of emotional destruction in our wake. We are all focused on walking our best path while not treading on others. Even with the best of intentions, we occasionally bump into one another.
This brings us to our second, and far more optimistic point.
BELIEVE THE BEST OF PEOPLE
While we can assume that people are never malicious because it is statistically true, we also maintain this view because it is the absolute best emotional landscape to set for ourselves. To see the world as out-to-get-you, with other people as potential perpetrators or adversaries, precludes you from creating or maintaining genuine relationships.
Relationships are rooted in vulnerability. If you do not like the sound of that word, let me explain. Vulnerability is opening your door. It is inviting people into your home. Vulnerability is trust. Trust that if you show up and present yourself just as you are, if you let people into your home, they will receive you with compassion. It is granting a generosity of spirit.
Open doors invite harm as well. Vulnerability is knowing that it is always better to open up, even at the risk of harm, than to remain shut in. This does not mean that you have to be an open book, exposing yourself completely and at all times. It does not mean sharing the intimate details of your life with everyone that you meet.
It does mean, however, that to create any meaningful relationship, you must welcome people into your home. Deep friendships are not formed when we each remain in our homes, conversing only by shouting across the street from our respective windows. We cannot build romantic relationships when we leave the chains fastened on our front doors, only opening them a crack.
Real relationships happen when we both show up open and willing to invite others into our home. This requires that we assume that people are good. This leaves us susceptible to occasional harm, but the risk is worth the reward. Most people, even though they will occasionally misstep, are more than capable of handling your most fragile emotions if you trust them to do so.
Never opening up is to never truly connect. There is an interesting psychological concept in how we instill trust and connection. The best way to get another person to trust you is to ask a small favor of them. When they oblige, they are subconsciously telling themselves that you are a person worth going out of their way for, thus instilling trust in you. When we open up to others, when we trust them in our homes, we give them the responsibility to act honorably. Most will rise to the occasion. In this way, trust is not earned. We must first gift our trust and most people will, in turn, act like someone worth trusting.
FIXED VS. GROWTH MINDSET
Finally, when we assume incompetence over malicious intent, we leave room for people to grow and improve. It is cheap and easy to write people off as mean or negative or hurtful. This gives us an out, justification to never address what they might have to offer. Hidden beneath their hurtful tone, might be a nugget of truth that, if considered, might fuel our growth.
To deem someone as “bad” is a judgement, a fixed opinion of who they are. People are not absolute. We all have the capacity to learn, grow, and become more sensitive and compassionate.
We all believe ourselves capable of growth and improvement. You are probably here at IHD, reading this article, under the assumption that you might find something to move you forward. That is the healthiest and most accurate way to see yourself. You are capable of becoming better. You will grow when you put your efforts toward it.
Afford this capacity to others as you hope they would afford it to you. You would feel extremely frustrated if those around you assumed that the person you are in this moment, is the only version that you will ever be. You know that you are on the path of constant growth. You want others to recognize your ability to improve. Assume this same journey in others.
CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
This mantra does not tell us that other people are never malicious. It does not tell us to always swallow purposefully hurtful remarks. It reminds us that, more often than not, hurtful people are expressing their own ineptitude rather than their cruelty. It helps us to remember which aspects of these interactions we can control. In a hurtful situation, we can react or we can respond. We can make it worse, or we can make it better. We can continue or exacerbate the situation. Or, we can make the charitable assumption - we assume incompetence over malice, and do what we can to make the situation better.