Hypothesis of generosity

The hypothesis of generosity: The most generous assumption you can make about this person's intentions or what this person said. Quote from Brené Brown

I want you to think of the last time somebody was angry at you.

What were they angry about? Did you actually intend to hurt them? If so, why was it important to hurt them? If not, what did they not understand about you?

  • Maybe you were late for lunch with a friend, but there was unexpected road construction that explained the delay? She felt disrespected because she felt you didn’t value her time?
  • Maybe you spoke more harshly to your husband yesterday than you know he deserved for something he didn’t do? Maybe he didn’t know how frustrated you were at how the dishwasher isn’t working, and your office assistant “called in sick” today, on a day you told her she couldn’t have off, and the coach threw in an unexpected practice across town for your daughter on short notice? He lit in to you about how unfair you were being…and you were, and you knew it. But him yelling at you didn’t help, did it?
  • Maybe your daughter was angry that you told her she couldn’t go out Friday night to the party with her friends, because there is a family outing together? She can’t know how much work went into timing it so that it worked for everybody. She also won’t appreciate for a number of years that even though friends feel like the most important thing in life, you also know how important family actually is?

Simply put, a hypothesis of generosity understands that often, if we can take a step back and be curious, there is a reason why something happened.

There is often more to the story that we can’t know. When we are generous with our hypothesis, we are often calmer and more connected; slower to become angry and have a response that may well shut another person down.

I began writing this blog, with the idea of “hypothesis of generosity” on my brain, just as my husband came into my office and had a seat in the recliner in the corner to give me an update.

My husband is starting a big project next week in his construction business. He and I often work together on some the projects he implements. He and I talked about doing the prep work necessary to go hard on the project starting in 2 days. Yesterday, he told me of all the pre-planning into the job he had already. The work was great. We were about to go out and continue the planning for the rest of the afternoon to get everything ready. Scouting for materials for the project. It was gonna be a fun day of being productive.

Then I asked him about the little other jobs that we both knew should be done so that his schedule would be single-focused on Monday. We had talked about this big project taking up his sole focus for the next 6 weeks. Part of getting ready for this project was clearing his schedule, by completing various other little projects that were half finished. He gave a vague answer, that was followed up by another vague answer when I asked about its vagueness.

I got irritated.

It felt like he was setting us up for failure.

I asked him, very clearly, if the little jobs were left at loose ends uncompleted.

At that moment, I was working on this blog of “hypothesis of generosity”.

The irony was not lost on me that I had a golden opportunity to put this hypothesis of generosity stuff into practice.

Sometimes, having integrity in this work means a tough choice to slow down and be mindful of the opportunity; to go against the grain of doing what is easy, to be wise to do what is right.

I asked him if there was something I misunderstood in our planning. How was he going to follow through with the smaller jobs when he would be working full time on the big project? What was I missing? Our winter, with its snow, is coming in about 4-6 weeks. These small projects were small construction jobs that are in backyards, outside. How was this going to work?

He took a deep breath and got honest. First with himself, then with me. The little jobs that were yet undone were things he agreed to in a “weak moment”. Tasks he felt he shouldn’t have agreed to. Piddly little jobs, he said, that were fussy and awkward. He had been dreading them. His brain really had put them out of sight and literally, “out of mind”. He wasn’t trying to deceive me, or be in any way malicious. The calm place deep inside of me knew that’s not the person he is.

He asked if we could postpone our project planning/shopping for an hour. He went downstairs and sent emails and made phone calls.

It’s quite possible that he will spend a day or two in the next 6 weeks, working on those “piddly little jobs” to get done this fall what he had agreed to complete.

Here’s the thing: If I’m honest. I get it.

I have household tasks that have been waiting for completion for several weeks because I don’t like doing them. The top of my dresser has some papers that have been waiting for filing for several weeks. It will only take a minute—but I don’t take the minute to do it because I’m tired of paperwork from my counselling practice and avoid it at home. How can I be mad at him when I do the same thing?

We got it cleared up, and had a great afternoon brainstorming, picking flooring and paint colors. We enjoyed the tasks and each other. I’m aware that writing this blog had me choose my part of the conversation carefully…and it has reminded me to be more mindful of using the hypothesis of generosity.

Giving my husband the benefit of the doubt for what was happening had me speak a little gentler and softer to him than I might have otherwise. We had a productive conversation as we worked it through. By conversing with him with a problem solving/curiosity mindset, he could respond less defensively. We were able to get on with our day feeling connected.

It helps, too, that I have a chance to see people in my counselling practice drop their guard. I get to see inside people’s lives and understand that most people really are doing their best, and sometimes, that best falls short.

When people are hurtful, it’s often not malicious. It’s just human.

I’ve worked with a lot of couples over the years who are in crisis, or are seeking to improve a mediocre relationship into a good one.

The most common pattern, when I do counselling with couples, is to meet with the couple together for the first session, and then to have a session alone with each of them. A chance for me to get to know the person without them being reactive to their spouse in the room. A chance for them to tell me things candidly without having to edit their thoughts because their spouse is listening.

So often, when there is conflict within the couple, they point fingers at the other person and say, “He does this”, and “She does that”. That first session often has a pretty high temperature…things can be fairly heated.

One of the things that always happens when I meet with each person individually, is that I get a chance to genuinely enjoy and like them as a human being. Even the one who was being accused of all sorts of nasty stuff…and even if a lot of what they were being accused of is true.

When I get to know the person, I go in with a strong and powerful belief that there is always a more important reason to do something than to not do it.

All behaviors, at some level, makes sense, even when it seems foolish or destructive at another level.

For example, a person:

  • Eats too much to deal with stress
  • Doesn’t go to the party because she is too stressed about what to wear and what to say
  • Always shows up late because he has social anxiety and he doesn’t know what he would do if he showed up early
  • Drinks too much to forget the pain that she has spent so much time ignoring that she doesn’t even remember the circumstances of the pain…but the wounding is still there
  • Preoccupied with work because he is good at it, and it’s the only place where he feels competent

It’s clear that the behavior becomes an issue, but it’s also clear the behavior was originally done to solve a real problem.

When I work  with a couple, I often help the couple get to the important reasons that are vulnerable to say out loud for why a spouse does what s/he does. As we dig into their experience, we discover how they are doing the best they can, but they do wonky, unhelpful, and even very hurtful things as a way of addressing an inner need:

  • A person gets defensive in arguments because they feel attacked…that you are threatening their value as a human being. This isn’t about you attacking them…this is about the feeling they have, which might be beyond their conscious awareness, that says that unless I am perfect, I am not lovable…so, in order to be “good enough” for you, they attack your accusations rather than listening to you. (Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense. But we’ve all done it!)
  • A husband loves his wife, but he grew up in a home where the language of love is never used. He doesn’t let his wife know how very much she means to him, because he believes that to tell her how very much he needs her in his life would have him seem weak. The vulnerability was never demonstrated or allowed when he was a child. She wonders if he even cares, while he is working hard to be the “strong, silent” type that she can look up to and trust to be her “knight in shining armor”.

My point?

Almost no spouses get up in the morning deciding to hurt their partner. We don’t set out to make each other’s lives miserable. We are not out to get their spouses. Generally, s/he is too busy trying to survive emotionally to be aware of what affect his/her outside behavior has on the other’s inner emotional well-being.

Far less often than we assume, I believe that people don’t intentionally hurt another.

Oh, people do indeed hurt others, but more often than not, the hurt is a by-product of doing the best they can and being very human about the whole thing.

I’m not suggesting that you excuse unacceptable behavior.

What I am suggesting in adopting a hypothesis of generosity is a spirit of:

  • Generosity and understanding.

  • Curiosity instead of judgement.

  • An attitude of collaboration rather than competition.

  • Compassion rather than a scolding.

It will mean taking a deep breath to adopt a hypothesis of generosity. But it may help as you work towards addressing the serious issues in your marriage, in the problems with a co-worker at work, with your mom or sister or nephew.

Give it a shot?


For more on “hypothesis of generosity” skip to about Minute 24 of this video to listen to Dr. Brené Brown’s story of how a hypothesis of generosity is helpful:

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