Don’t ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence

Have you ever had someone tailgate you on the highway and you’ve found yourself deciding whether you should tap your brakes, slam on the brakes, or just drive slower to punish the asshole for driving so close to you?  I drive more than the average American and I’ve been in this situation before.  I find it really easy to get annoyed but choose not to.  I choose to assume that there may be some reason this person is in a huge hurry and I pull over into the right lane and let him pass.  I find I feel much better when I do that instead of the anger I’d feel if I decided to assume this driver was just being a jerk.  I’ve also found that those negative feelings tend to color the rest of the day, and therefore avoiding them and taking a positive stance makes the rest of the day better.  It’s incredibly powerful to avoid the unnecessary negative feelings and choose to assume positive ones.

Don’t ascribe to malice refers to Hanlon’s razor which basically says that you shouldn’t assume someone is doing something out of spite when it could be attributed to stupidity.  I prefer to think that others may have a really good reason for what they are doing or saying, and remain positive about it.  I admit not being perfect at it, but when I think about it and make the effort, in most cases it ends up positively.

“Ambiguity is always perceived negatively”

I use email as one of the main ways to communicate at work.  Without hearing a person’s voice, or knowing the state of mind of the person sending the email, there’s plenty of room for misunderstandings.  In the past when I used to imagine the person reading the email to me, especially in response to something that I sent them, it was often in a negative voice instead of positive, especially when the response was ambiguous.

Have you ever written a long email to someone and gotten back a very short response like “No.” or “No, that’s not going to work.”, or even “Let me think about it.”?  I used to feel like some injustice had just occurred because clearly my well thought out email wasn’t even considered, or the person already had their mind made up.  However, if I focus on the fact that there could be a very good reason why the answer was not what I was hoping for, and a good reason the response was short, I find myself not feeling annoyed and instead following up and asking for further clarification.  Not only does this help me better understand why the world doesn’t see my very valuable points, I end up avoiding the negative feelings that can color the rest of my day.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

Has anyone ever shared something with you that someone else said and you were surprised to hear because it didn’t sound like them?  You can choose to either be upset at the other person or you can say “That doesn’t sound like them” and talk to them about it.  Oftentimes I find that the other half of the story is a lot better than the one sided view made it appear.  The benefit of this approach is you don’t hold the negative feelings due to a misunderstanding when you approach things this way.

Always keep in mind that we don’t know what others are going through.  Is the tailgater late for his first day on the new job?  Is he rushing to the hospital because his son was just injured at a football game and was transported to the hospital?

Was the email response short because the sender understood the importance of getting a response to you but also knew that they could only provide a short response now and would explain further later?  Was the sender of the email busy with something else and sent a confusing response because they are overworked and focused on too many things at the same time?

Is your coworker going through some stress at home that could account for their actions? Are they sick or dealing with a sickness of a loved one?  Instead of assumptions, remain positive and communicate instead.

Approaching situations with a positive attitude, avoiding negative feelings that aren’t warranted, and not ascribing everything to malice is a great way to improve your outlook in a world that seems to be providing an endless number of opportunities to think negatively. So, don’t automatically ascribe everything to malice, and don’t take on negative feelings about a situation that you can choose to be positive about.  I don’t want you to rule out malice, but try not to let it be your first assumption.

One thought on “Don’t ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence

  1. Great points all of them. I’m not perfect either but live by these. So many tailgaters down here in SC. I have to move out of the way a lot or I’d go crazier.

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