This blog post was written after I listened to a podcast in which Brene Brown – the author of five No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, including “The Gifts of Imperfection,” “Daring Greatly” and “Dare to Lead” – defined generosity as “extend(ing) the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.”
This might strike many people as a little New Age-y – a criticism I have held myself and understand well. However, generosity – specifically generous assumptions – has led me to a state of equanimity when confronting unpleasant, aggressive and unexpected happenings in my professional life.
These observations don’t apply to all lawyers, but I have encountered attorneys who are defensive, passive aggressive and, sometimes, flat-out belligerent. It can be difficult to maintain a mindful approach and to make generous assumptions in such situations, but it’s worth trying to make the kindest assumption about a person’s intentions or behaviors.
For example, say you send opposing counsel an email that you consider important, even urgent, and it goes unanswered. You follow up the next day with another email, with the subject line in all caps and a sanctimonious diatribe about the importance of your email – which continues to be unanswered. At this point, you are thinking of the email recipient as lazy, uncaring or even disrespectful.
This is where generous assumptions come into play. Generous assumptions force us to recognize and make allowances for the unknown circumstances of others. Perhaps the email recipient is on vacation and failed to turn on his out-of-office reply. Perhaps he has competing priorities that day. Perhaps he had an emergency.
Practicing generous assumptions is not an exercise in making excuses for others. It is an exercise in empathy, in expressing our emotions judiciously and in exerting self-control. For the most part, I believe people, especially lawyers, put their best foot forward because their livelihoods depend on it.
I challenge everyone to extend the most generous interpretation possible to the words and actions of others.
Maureen Edobor is an associate with Goldberg Segalla, LLP in Baltimore.