Dear Abby’s Secret Advice Formula

Ever since I was a kid, a newspaper has plopped onto my doorstep each day with a Dear Abby (or Ann Landers) column waiting to be read.

Day after day people pour out their frustrations, and Abby and Ann share their pithy answers.

The letters typically have a similar format. First the writer complains about some hurt or offense and then expresses their anger and consternation:

The neighbors drop in too often and don’t know when to leave.

A woman’s friends always meet after work for coffee, but never call her to invite her along.

What to do?

I think I’ve discovered Abby and Ann’s formula for situations like this:

1. Judge favorably.

2. Be direct.

To “judge favorably” is to give another person the benefit of the doubt. It’s to come up with kinder explanations for an action that initially offends you. Just today I posted an excerpt from Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus about this called “Taking My Thumb Off the Scale.” There I explain how the idea of “judging favorably” developed in Judaism before the first century AD, and how Jesus was likely building on it when he taught about not judging.

Here’s how it works if you’re an advice columnist:

Dear Abby, My new co-worker is a great person, but she always talks loudly in her cubical which is right next to mine. I can’t get any work done! What can I do? –Distracted by Loudmouth

Dear Distracted, Maybe your coworker doesn’t realize how loud her voice is, or how much it carries into your space. Maybe she came from a loud office environment where this was normal. Maybe she has a hearing problem! Take her aside and gently point to her that her volume is interfering with your ability to concentrate.

Over and over I see columnists use this pattern: Think of every possible mitigating factor about the person’s offensive behavior. Find ways to give them the benefit of the doubt. Then, once you’ve calmed yourself down, tell the offender gently and directly what the problem is. Don’t stew about it, don’t try to get revenge, don’t gossip to others, don’t post it on your Facebook page. Just pull yourself together and go to them with what’s bothering you, pointing out what is wrong, but being as generous as possible about the reason why.

As Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” (Matthew 18:15)

Judge favorably, then be direct.

Sounds wise to me. Now if I miss my daily paper, I’ll know what to do.


10 Responses to “Dear Abby’s Secret Advice Formula”

  1. 1
    Rebecca Mitchell|July 12, 2012

    Good advice! I have recently been given another piece of advice that is in a similar vein: “Choose NOT to be offended.” Many times what I think is really a pain is nothing much except that I have (as you said) stewed about it and let it annoy me. If I choose NOT to be offended, and also judge favorably — it is like two sides of the same good coin. Thanks again, Lois, for encouraging me to walk after Jesus!

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|July 12, 2012

    That’s a good word, Rebecca. Assume people are not out to offend you. Very wise.

  3. 3
    Melissa B.|July 13, 2012

    Sadly, it often seems I have the hardest time favorably judging the people I love the most. If my coworker does something annoying or hurtful, I make an excuse for her. But if my husband forget to put a bag in the trashcan or interrupts me when I’m talking, I immediately put up my guard and get angry. Why is that, I wonder? I need to work harder at following this advice with him and all the other people I love the most.

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|July 17, 2012

    Very true, Melissa.

  5. 5
    Will|July 20, 2012

    Ha! Melissa B. read my mail there! And Rebecca Mitchell’s insight about choosing not to be offended is another gem. I just wish I could choose not to be *hurt* by some people. But just as choosing to give the benefit of the doubt to those who annoy us helps us ‘get over it’, giving the benefit of the doubt to those who *hurt* us helps us heal, even if they never apologize.

    BTW – The text on your website is annoyingly HUGE?! Maybe it’s just my PC, though. Or maybe your web designer has poor eyesight, or maybe…

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|July 20, 2012

    I agree, Will. Assuming that a person didn’t intend to hurt you takes away some of the sting.

    Regarding the text size, it varies by browser. Because the text is white on black, many people need it bigger to read it easily. On your browser, your “View” panel should have a text size control.

  7. 7
    Bryan Berry|July 20, 2012

    Thanks for the insight with this post, as well as the Taking My Thumb Off The Scale excerpt from your book. It helps make sense of Luke 6:35-38. I agree with you about giving someone the benefit of the doubt, on the other hand do you think it would be easy to become naive with this view?

  8. 8
    Lois Tverberg|July 25, 2012

    Bryan, thanks for your question. I address the question of being naive more the chapter in Walking in the Dust where this excerpt comes from.

    One rabbi talks about aiming toward judging “fairly” rather than “favorably.” What I’ve found in my own experience is that being naive is not usually a danger, because my scales are strongly shifted towards guilt rather than innocence. It’s only after I’ve forced myself to come up with excuses for someone that I realize my initial assumptions are often no more plausible.

    Sure, if you could be naive if you judge too kindly. But the alternative is to be thin-skinned, suspicious, cynical and judgmental because you assume the worst about others. It’s better to err toward kindness.

  9. 9
    Will|July 26, 2012

    I don’t think it’s naive to assume the best about someone (until and unless proven wrong); but we do have to see culpability in someone’s words or actions in order to truly forgive them. To forgive implies that we’ve been wronged.

  10. 10
    Lois Tverberg|July 26, 2012

    Very good, Will. I agree.

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