Assumption of Universal Benevolence
Although I want to be special and unique, the older I get the more I suspect that we are all the same. And, we all want to be special and unique. I don’t know anyone like I know myself. And no one knows me. I guess it’s natural to judge ourselves and others by different standards.
I’m sad to say that in my life I have hurt many people. I hurt my parents, my sister, and my brother. I’ve hurt friends, class mates, work mates, girl friends, my kids and wives. I’ve hurt animals. I killed a robin once. When I was about five I kicked my dog. (And I have felt bad about it ever since.) In the heat of the moment I have said things I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes I may have lashed out. But, I don’t remember ever deliberately trying to hurt someone.
And I doubt that other people deliberately try to hurt others, either. I think people are good seeking objects. We naturally seek good. The trouble is that what is good for me may be bad for you. Columnist Sydney Harris used to devote whole columns to lists of triads like “I do tax planning. You fudge your taxes. And he cheats on his taxes.” Or “I am robust. You are chunky. He is fat.” He pointed out how we tend to describe the same actions in different ways depending on who the actor is. We attribute more benign motives to ourselves and friends than we attribute to our enemies.
I used to teach the “Assumption of Universal Benevolence” (AUB) in my communication classes to help people be more effective in their communications. A repeating refrain in my communication training was “there is always a motive in your communication. You want someone to do something, or not do something. Or you want them to believe or not believe something. You want change. Everything you do is motivated by some desire. You don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch. I like that line so much I’ll repeat it. You don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.” So when you speak to me you want some change in me. If you want to influence me you had best use my language. Don’t give me complicated directions in Greek. I don’t understand Greek. If you describe my behavior in terms with which I disagree I will not get what you’re trying to say. It may as well be Greek.
If you want to influence me you must approach me from my point of view or I won’t listen, or if I listen I’ll hear something different from what you want me to hear. No matter how bad the action, the actor is pursuing good as they see it. If you don’t acknowledge the good intention you will raise their defensiveness.