Humans are built to watch for threats. We’re descended from people who were very good at watching for – and therefore surviving – attacks from dangerous predators or warring clans.

Then there was the issue of tribal pecking order – our rank in the small, social clans sometimes meant the difference between getting the resources our family needed to survive, and perishing. This made us very sensitive to perceived slights to our status. The ability to determine someone else’s intent could mean the difference between life and death. It was safest to assume the worst.

Nowadays, we live in much different conditions than our forebears. We are no longer in danger of mortal attacks from enemy clans. Status is still important, but no longer critical. We still have that wiring, however – our senses are still always monitoring our interactions for danger, even in mundane situations. When any conflict arises, we immediately become wary of the other’s intent.

For example, where do our thoughts go when we receive an email or voice mail that is blunt or curt? If we assume the worst, things can quickly spiral out of control and we end up with a lot of drama and stress. We make up stories about others’ intentions and then forget we made them up, treating them as true and causing all sorts of confusion. We try to figure out why they are after us and plan how we will get back at them. It takes a lot of time and energy.

But what if we give others the benefit of the doubt and assume, initially at least, that they have good intentions? If we ignore the apparent slight and assume the other person was just having a bad day, which is the most likely situation, we are choosing to trust them until we find out more. We can then ask what they meant by their words or actions. Asking questions for clarification will lead to understanding and help improve relationships.

Extending trust pays dividends and increases the trust others extend to us, which in turn makes it easier for everyone to trust each other’s intentions next time. The negative spiral becomes a positive one.

If we can’t ask, or don’t feel comfortable asking why the other person did or said something, we can explore other interpretations of an incident than just a negative one. Maybe they were just in a hurry, or feeling stressed or crabby over something that had nothing to do with us at all. Most people are as wrapped up in their own lives as we are in ours – it is highly unlikely that anyone wakes up every morning looking forward to tormenting us today.

Of course, we can’t pretend that there aren’t people who wish us ill. There are people who take advantage of others to enhance their own standing. We need to temper how much we trust, based on past behavior, though one bad incident doesn’t guarantee continued harm.

What if the other person sees us as the problem? Sometimes we’re wrong and have to take responsibility for how our actions have affected others. We intended to help, but may have unintentionally offended or hurt the other person. If so, we need to acknowledge that and apologize. There’s nothing wrong with the other person if they take something we say or do in a different way than we meant it, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with us if we do the same thing.

Mistakes and miscommunication will occur. When we assume good intentions and offer the benefit of the doubt, we allow others the space to be in a bad mood, or distracted, or stressed. In other words, allow them to be human.