How I Learned to Stop Assuming the Worst


Bethany Olsen -LearntoUnderstand4

I’m wading through grad school right now, somewhere in the messy middle of things. My goal in doing the grad program I chose, had a lot to do with an inner restlessness I can’t quite explain, and a desire to know I’ve put my back into life and am making the most use of the cards in my hand. I was expecting twists and turns and some useful information, along with some days of pure drudgery (cough, statistics, cough). What I wasn’t expecting was to end up in a management class that changed my life.

The class’s main focus revolved around examining the internal ways we react to those around us. It turns out, we’ve all got a lot of internal dialogue going on that we might not even be aware of on a conscious level. (If you’re reading this and smiling indulgently at me because “duh!”, you’re totally my hero for having figured this out on your own.) In every single class, we got into small groups to talk about a variety of issues pertaining to management. The goal wasn’t to solve the world’s management woes, however, but rather to take a step back and begin to notice how each of us internally reacted to each other in these conversations.

We would discuss some of the things that drove us crazy. Excessive use of the word “like.” Specific facial expressions. Words or tone of voice or ideas that reminded us of people from our past. It’s surprising how many emotions a person can go through that block the ability to hear what the person in front of us is trying to communicate. Worse yet, it’s startlingly easy to add to what we hear, attributing viewpoints to people that they haven’t actually articulated.

We read through a book called Leadership and Self-Deception that taught us how we put people “in the box,” a place where we label them and assume the worst. We actually set them up for failure and then we are secretly delighted that happened, because clearly they are a HORRIBLE PERSON.

This class would have been helpful to me any day of the week, any year of my life. But taking it in Fall of 2016 brought new meaning to the topic, beyond the workplace and management.

It’s no secret that the USA is divided politically right now. We’re so sensitive that all it takes to get someone into a tizzy, is to see a stranger in public with the “other side’s” political propaganda on their body or car bumper. We fill in the gaps about each other faster than you can say, “Wait, what?” We assume that if someone thinks a certain way about one topic, we can absolutely gauge their intentions and beliefs surrounding all other issues. “Oh, you like Pepsi? You must be a serial killer. No other explanation.”

I’m exaggerating, of course, but in some cases not by too much.

On days I’m truthful with myself, I’m appalled at how easily I wish failure on other people so I can hold onto how right I am. My default is to assume my reactions to other people are based on their problems, when in reality it’s often because I’m tired, worried, or even just plain hungry. Let’s be honest: how often could we respond to people a lot better if we sat down and ate a freaking sandwich first?

It’s hard, this kind of self-reflection. But the statement I remember most clearly from my professor is this: “We are doing this work so that we can have choices in life.” Until we understand what’s going on inside, we don’t really have a choice in how we respond to people or situations that trigger us. Once we start listening, we can begin to understand, and we then have options for new ways of interacting with the world around us.

Bethany Olsen
I'm a writer located just south of the Canadian border in northwest Washington. Passionate about connection through personal story and finding one's voice, I am continually seeking both of those things. When not writing and editing, I can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching "Project Runway," or traveling the world. I blog at
Bethany Olsen
Bethany Olsen

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  1. This is so interesting! People are unfortunately complex and I, shamefully, find myself disappointed sometimes when people don’t fit in the box I put them in. To listening better and loving more!

  2. Such a beautiful piece Bethany! What a life lesson to learn and kudos to your professor for highlighting this. Our actions follow our thoughts – every time. Great reminder 🙂

  3. I read this and my first thought was, “Wow I do that.” I wish I had heard this a long, long time ago, but I’m glad to hear it now. Especially now, when the lines of division are being drawn dark and thick, it’s a necessary reminder to listen and hear what is being said and lean in. Thank you!

    • Bethany Olsen Bethany Olsen says:

      Aww, thanks Claire. Here’s to trying to practice having better conversations. Now is unfortunately a really good opportunity.

  4. I definitely agree that we are too quick to judge others and assume the worst! Unfortunately, the foreign policy I’m seeing from the new administration seems to indicate to me that they are assuming the worst of Muslims…

    • Bethany Olsen Bethany Olsen says:

      Yes. 🙁 Everything that has happened around that in the past 48 hrs has been so disheartening to see. I’m trying to sort out two different trains of thought around it: 1. what kinds of action can I take personally to stand up for Muslims/immigrants/refugees and 2. how can I have better conversations with people in my day-to-day life about this. Both points are a challenge.

  5. I honor and applaud your persistence with grad school — and this wonderful insight from a management class must be your reward for having endured statistics. Blessings to you!

  6. Bev Murrill says:

    Bethany, you’re so so right.. this is such an insightful post. If we could work this out, I’m sure the world would be a better place.

    • Bethany Olsen Bethany Olsen says:

      I sure hope we can work some of this out a little better in the USA very soon. It seems like people in here are so wound up about a long string of grievances against each other. Every conversation seems to be us talking around each other about how upset and afraid we are, and how unheard we feel by the “other side.” If we can’t start hearing and seeing where each other is really at and then meeting each other in the middle with an outstretched hand, we’re never going to move forward.

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