Think the Best

Published: February 23, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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Do you tend to be trusting of others or distrustful?

Trusting others to be considerate and respectful toward us can be difficult in light of our own experiences as well as news reports that tend to show the worst of people.

Years ago, I remember being warned by several friends when they learned I would be working with a particular individual. They warned me of his extreme temper and that he could explode any time. While I remained alert to this, I felt I had to put forth the same level of respect I would anyone else, unless his actions proved otherwise.

“Thinking the best of others,” P.M. Forni writes in Choosing Civility, “is a decent thing to do and a way of keeping a source of healthful innocence in our lives. When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that.”

While all of us need to be alert to strange or unusual behavior from anyone we meet in most circumstances, it’s important to balance a realistic outlook with a respectful attitude. “Trust, but verify,” was President Ronald Reagan’s operative approach. However, when we allow ourselves to be open with others, it can frequently lead to unexpected rewards.

All of us tend to judge by appearances and such was the case with my New Hampshire students. On the first day, I began by seeing them collectively – a variety of students taking a required course. While I quickly learned their names and areas of study, I knew nothing of their individual stories. As I assumed they were there to learn about ethics, I expected the best of them. As I began to share more, they shared more of themselves and I was able to see and understand them more as individuals rather than just students. They all had expectations, goals, and talents and over the course of five days, I came to appreciate much more of who they were and what they were striving to achieve in their lives.

All of this came from being open and thinking the best of them.

Forni writes that “In my role as a teacher, my drive and enthusiasm in the classroom owe much to my assumption that all of my students are essentially good human beings, interested in the pursuit of knowledge, and willing to work hard. Believing that they are good, I want to be good for them. Am I deluding myself in thinking the best of them?  At times, perhaps I am. But what really counts is that almost all of them will rise to the occasion, riding the tide of my trust.”

This was precisely the experience I had in New Hampshire. I assumed the best and in return, most of them stepped up and delivered. And what they delivered inspired me to step up my game. It all began by thinking the best of them.

“When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that.”


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