A high percentage of human conflict starts when we guess at people’s motives and get it wrong. My favorite Brené Brown story is about this very thing. Her husband opens the refrigerator and mumbles, “There’s nothing to eat in here.” Working in the next room, she assumes he’s complaining that she hasn’t been a good wife. That she hasn’t done her wifely duty. When she confronts him (wounded and hurt), he says, “No, I’m just hungry! How could I be upset with you? I buy all the groceries around here!”
Listen to the way we ascribe motives to people without any basis in fact. “She’s not really sick . . . she just wants to get out of working on this project!” “He doesn’t really want to coach his son’s team; he just wants to be the nice guy who passes out the trophies at the end of the season.” “He doesn’t really care about me as a person; he just wants me to be in his Sunday school class so the room’s full!”
Closer to home. “I don’t think my wife really loves me. She never pays me any attention.” “My husband hates helping me in the kitchen . . . he must think he’s too good for that!” “My kids never want to come home and hang out with us; they must think we’re embarrassing.”
Notice how we assume the motives for these actions . . . how we connect dots that might not be connected. After 50 years of marriage, I know my wife loves me even though she rarely says it. Most husbands (myself included) don’t hate helping in the kitchen. We simply feel incompetent. We don’t know where things are or where they go. Why do kids never want to come home and hang out? Because they have their own lives! It’s likely not all about you.
When you hear yourself ascribe motives to another’s actions, put a check on it. “How do I know that?” “What else might be driving that decision?” “Am I attempting to make myself look or feel better by judging another’s motives, about which I know nothing?”
Discernment is a gift and a skill. It’s most helpful in protecting us from error and evil. Applied to other people’s lives and motives, it can be dangerous and divisive.
Scripture: Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
PS . . . For an interesting article on the pitfalls of understanding people’s motives, read this.