The Power of Giving (and Receiving) the Benefit of the Doubt

Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust. The benefit of the doubt is the most powerful tool for establishing and maintaining trust in any important relationship, whether it be with customers or in your personal life. But what is the benefit of the doubt? 

Merriam-Webster defines the benefit of the doubt as "the state of accepting something/someone as honest or deserving of trust even though there are doubts."

There are fundamental reasons for giving someone the benefit of the doubt, or the "B of D" as I like to call it: It lets them know that you believe them, that you trust they are doing the best they can, and that you know they also want a good outcome. But giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt can also influence how you cope with and respond to your day-to-day interactions and experiences. Here are three ways to use the benefit of the doubt to improve your relationships:

1. Give other people the benefit of the doubt.

Think about those times when someone, perhaps your boss or your partner, appears to be closed off and unapproachable. They might look mad or upset. Do you automatically assume they are angry with you, that you did something wrong? 

When you get an email from your co-worker saying, "I don't care. Whatever you want to do," do you read deeper into their words and wonder about their intentions? Do they really not care if you take the lead? Or are they unhappy with you and so don't care at all what you do? 

When you send your manager your quarterly report, and you don't hear back from him, but he praises another team member for their timely and comprehensive report, do you assume he was disappointed in your report? Or that he is intentionally ignoring you for some reason?

What if the owner walks through the building, and she passes your desk without saying hello? Do you assume there's a problem brewing?   

In each of these scenarios, you have to take a step back and realize you are not giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Instead, you are starting with a negative assumption. When you find yourself trying to interpret someone's behavior and then blaming yourself, you have a few choices:

  • Decide to give the other person the benefit of the doubt until it is no longer warranted. 
  • Remind yourself that you are reading too much into the situation and give yourself permission to wait it out until you know more.
  • Initiate a casual conversation to test the waters. It could be about the project you're working on, the birthday cake in the office kitchen, or their kid's latest soccer game. See how they respond. 
  • If there are other indicators that they might be unhappy with you, or if you can't stop thinking about it, and if appropriate, consider asking about your observation. "I'm just checking in. Is there something going on? Are you upset about something?"

When you approach someone by giving them the benefit of the doubt, you will be more open-minded and curious about them. But when you start an interaction with preconceived ideas and assumptions about someone, you won't really listen to them. You will likely rely on what you already know or believe, and you will be more closed off. Approach most interactions, even challenging ones, with a "benefit of the doubt" mindset. It will make you a better listener, and the other person will feel more positively about speaking with you.

2. Ask to be given the benefit of the doubt.

There are situations in which someone is not giving you the benefit of the doubt during an interaction. Maybe you're going back and forth in a disagreement with no end in sight. Or you said something the other person misunderstood, and it's evident to you that they did not receive the information the way you intended. 

Instead of explaining yourself until you're exhausted, stop the back-and-forth interaction and say:

"Please give me the benefit of the doubt that ______________."

  • You misunderstood what I said, and that was not what I meant.
  • I didn't mean it the way you took it.
  • I did the best I could.
  • I'm being honest about the outcome.
  • My work, or my job, or this company matters to me.

Don't sort-of mention it. Say the words directly and out loud, "Give me the benefit of the doubt," so they know you are asking them to trust you and lean in toward you, even though they may have some doubts.

3. Take the 24-hour B of D Challenge.

Finally, since this is one of my favorite subjects, I invite you to take my 24-hour B of D Challenge. For the next 24 hours, give the benefit of the doubt to others during all of your important interactions. Enter each conversation with the belief that the other person cares about you and the subject matter, and they are doing their best. See what you notice, not only about the outcome of your interactions but also about yourself.  

When we give others the benefit of the doubt, it takes some of the pressure off the conversation. It allows us to listen actively, connect, and hear what the other person is saying. And if someone is not giving you the benefit of the doubt, instead of getting frustrated or annoyed, ask for what you need and say respectfully but directly: "Please give me the benefit of the doubt." 

Giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt helps us bypass hours of negative thinking, cope with constant frustration during difficult conversations, and move forward. It frees us up from distraction and discontentment. And, best of all, it's a big part of the trust-building process between you and the other person.

So give someone the benefit of the doubt today. The benefits far outweigh the risks.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

A version of this article was initially published on as: The Simple Secret to Establishing Trust in Your Relationships at Work and Home