Carolyn Merry, Director of Place for Hope, encourages us to look below the surface in our interactions so that we might increasingly give others the benefit of the doubt.

“The benefit of the doubt?”

I often wonder what Christmas and indeed the life of Christ would have been if Joseph had not given Mary the benefit of the doubt when she told him she was with child through the Holy Spirit. I find it a mark of Joseph’s character that trapped in human understanding and held in the religious customs of the day, even before he was visited in his dreams by an angel of the Lord, Joseph took the decision to not publicly disgrace Mary but rather acted out of love and gave Mary the benefit of the doubt.

A key tool for conflict transformation is the skill to look below the surface of behaviour and positions others take. To transform conflict enabling deeper relationships and communities we must continually dig deeper and discover the human needs and journeys that have resulted in the behaviour and positions that challenge us. It is at that level that we can find our interconnection and compassion for each other and have our best chance of finding ways to move forward together with our differences.

Many, if not most of the conflicts that Place for Hope is called to help mediate, reflect the broken relationships that have resulted from communication-based on the principle that we “judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour” (Stephen M.R. Covey).

Jesus teaches powerfully and frequently on this topic in his public ministry:

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticise their faults – unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It is easy to see a smudge on your neighbour’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your whole face is distorted in contempt?

~ Matthew 7:1-4 (The Message)

Place for Hope encourages using the following tips when we find ourselves in situations where we are inclined towards judging, shaming, or mistrusting others:

  • The critical practice of ‘the pause’ before reacting to someone’s behaviour/position, gives us the opportunity to act out of love rather than react out of fear or anger or judgement.
  • Seek to understand, rather than agree: Whenever we encounter someone who is behaving or taking a position that we disagree with or is damaging, it is important to dig below the surface and understand why someone is saying or doing something (and why it challenges us). This does not mean we condone harmful behaviour but rather seek to understand what has brought someone to that point and hence give us a better idea of their needs in the way we respond (and if necessary, challenge/manage the behaviour). A well placed, “can you help me understand why you sound so angry” may well elicit a compassionate dialogue that acknowledges the needs of all involved and allow choices to emerge that meet those needs.
  • Holding relationship even when we passionately disagree. Jesus challenged the law and prevailing practice (then and now) by commanding us to love our enemies. Giving each other the benefit of doubt not only opens the space to hear one another’s (even our enemy’s) story/journey but also the possibility of seeing God (however dimly) in the other. Jesus does not command us to agree but does urge us to hold relationship across the deepest divides – directly or through prayer – in which we seek the best for the other as well as ourselves.

This advent, as we reflect on the meaning of the Prince of Peace in our divided world, may we seek peace as we; pause, suspend judgement, dig below the surface and help create a larger, more loving story together.


~ Carolyn Merry

Director, Place for Hope