by Marsha Rakestraw

The recent US election has highlighted a significant divisiveness.

And the media and social media have been awash in hate speech and arguments, calls for healing and moving on, judgments, ideas about next steps, and assumptions.

Usually when we make assumptions about others, they’re not positive ones.

We tend to make split-second judgments; build complex stories in the blink of an eye with them as villain and us as hero (or victim); attach nefarious motivations to their actions.

We forget that we’re seeing them through our own lenses, with our own stories and experiences as filters that influence what we think, believe, and notice.

As good as it can feel to unleash anger and blame at others, studies show that taking action that spurs people to feel judged and defensive not only decreases their willingness to consider change, but may make them more likely to dig into their current beliefs.

All of us who can (notably those who are not members of the most vulnerable groups) have a responsibility to engage with others – especially those who don’t share our beliefs – in ways that create space for understanding, empathy, and positive change.

As part of that effort, here are five assumptions that we should try to make about everyone.

1. Everyone is doing the best they can at that moment.
We may be distressed by someone’s actions or attitude — we may even find those actions abhorrent — but it can help if we remember that (almost) everyone is doing the best they can, given their current situation and circumstances.

People act and react out of pain, ignorance, and fear. And we often don’t know the full context for the choices they make. So offering them patience and tolerance will help both them and us.

As Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

2. People will respond better to compassion than to anger or hatred.
Humans do a lot of horrible things. To nonhuman animals, to the earth, and to each other. Just look at the recent outpouring of harassment and intimidation since the election.

It’s easy for our rage and despair to flare at the cruelties and injustices perpetrated. And when we act from a place of hatred or righteous indignation, it can certainly make us feel better.

But as anyone who has faced the brunt of others’ ire knows (and as research shows), people are much more likely to open their minds and hearts when they encounter compassion and an openness to listening.

3. People are paying attention to the message we’re modeling.
We’re modeling a message with our every word and deed. And people are paying attention.

If we want a compassionate world, are we modeling compassion? If we want people to be their best selves, are we striving to be our best? Are we modeling a joyful, humane way of living that reflects our deepest values and that inspires others to want to join us?

In all my years of activism I’ve had more people tell me they’ve been influenced by watching how I live my life and engage with others than by any particular campaign or strategy.

4. People are more than just the pieces of themselves.
I live in a co-housing community in which I’ve built relationships with people I probably never would have connected with in other circumstances, because the pieces of themselves that conflict with my own values would have hindered me from diving more deeply with them.

If I stop and judge people based on those parts of them that disturb me (the political affiliations of certain friends and family; the fact that my brother used to work in a slaughterhouse; the friends who have to buy the latest stuff), then I’m missing out on so much: the big picture of who they are; the chance to find common ground and connect; the opportunity to learn.

I certainly don’t want people judging me by the pieces that get on their nerves; I hope they see beyond that to the whole — to the person I’m striving to become.

5. Everyone has something to teach us.
It may just be “Don’t do that,” but everyone has something to teach us.

From the person spouting hateful remarks of prejudice, I can remember to check my own biases and to ensure that vulnerable people around me are protected. From the person sharing wildly misleading news stories, I can remember to use my critical thinking skills and to hold myself accountable for ensuring that any information I share is accurate and credible. From the person stepping up to help someone in need, I can be inspired to take more time to help others.

Striving to make positive assumptions about others in no way condones inhumane or unethical behavior.

But making those assumptions can help foster an environment in which creating space to connect with and listen to others — and modeling a humane message — leads to all of us striving to be our best selves — which can lead to a more humane world for all.