Negativity Bias, Charitable Interactions, and Learning to See the Best in Others

Have you had any negative interactions with people lately? Have you had any encounters in which you were less than charitable?

I have.

My name is Matthew Dowling, I am a preaching minister, and I have had less-than-charitable interactions with people. In fact, last week I had several interactions which inspired this post. Funny thing is: the people involved never knew about it.

Let me explain.

Our ministry team has been planning an outreach event for our neighbors as a way of introducing our church to them. It will be big, there will be lots of free food and entertainment, and it’s going to be fun. Last weekend a number of our members went door to door to invite our neighbors for this event, and it was a great success.

My excitement for the event ebbed a bit though when several nights before the invitations went out, I received several emails from church members which I perceived to be critical of our block party. Note, I received the emails late in the evening before I was about to go to bed, and I was tired from a long day. My initial reaction was that the criticism was unfair, these folks were rascals, and they clearly intended to undermine the party.

Imagine my surprise the next morning when, fresh off a good night’s sleep, I was able to look at the emails with a bit more objectivity…and charity (a bit of an intentional move as I will explain shortly). As I re-read the notes, I realized that the people were trying to be helpful as they pointed out several flaws in our planning. Once I was able to assume the people were being helpful rather than cantankerous, I was able to see their good intentions and learn from their constructive criticism.

The whole episode got me thinking: why do I sometimes misread criticism so badly in my ministry? Or more generally, why do I sometimes assume the worst in people and their motives?

Well, it turns out most all of us have a problem, and it might be one that you need to keep in mind in your ministry. Because of what scientists call the brain’s negativity bias, we’re often more likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones: the things that worry or annoy us, or make us critical.

In fact, negativity bias accounts for why insults once hurled at us stick inside our skulls, sometimes for decades, and why some people have to work extra hard to ward off depression. Negativity bias also explains why political smear campaigns often overwhelm positive ones. Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains. This and more is due to the brain’s negativity bias: your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing.

Which is a problem for us as Christians and ministers when we deal with people, because our brains weigh us down with negative assumptions that ensure we fall short of the merciful, charitable attitudes we would like to manifest toward others.

But as it turns out, one of the most helpful things we can do to overcome the brain’s negativity bias is to intentionally practice seeing the good in others. In other words, in the midst of the moment, we should pause and tell ourselves, “I will see the good in this person and this interaction.” Doing this is a simple but very powerful way to feel happier, more loving, and more charitable in our interactions with other people. So what does this discipline of seeing the good in others look like in practice?

Try these three steps:

Slow down – When I received the (constructively) critical emails, I recognized that I was feeling pretty negative about them, so I tabled them for the next day, rested well that night, and the next morning I spent a few moments being curious about the good qualities in the people who had sent them. Once I did, it was hard to deny the senders were people of character. In slowing down, we are opening our eyes, taking account of the negativity bias in our brains, and seeing what the facts really are. The facts were that those who emailed me care deeply for me and the church.

See positive intentions in others – For example, a toddler throwing mashed potatoes wants fun, a teenager dripping attitude might want higher status, and a spouse who avoids housework wants leisure. Try to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person and appreciate what is driving them underneath the interaction. This has the added benefit of slowing things down before jumping to conclusions.

See positive character traits – Unless you’re surrounded by deadbeats and sociopaths, everyone you know must have many virtues, such as determination, generosity, kindness, patience, energy, grit, honesty, fairness, or compassion. Take a moment to observe virtues in others. You could make a list of virtues in key people in your life–even in people who are challenging for you! Try this for your elders if you are a minister, or vice versa. You will benefit from the meditation.

As a final practice, some time ago I began to give personal interactions that caused me tension special time in prayer. Often times the prayers are pretty simple. “Lord, I am assuming the worst about Mr. Smith in that recent interaction. Please help me see the good in him and the situation. Let me be charitable.” And then I leave things alone for a while.

It’s amazing how often these interactions turn out better when I do that.

Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.

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Author:  Publish Date: July 25, 2016

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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