Judging favorably is a mitzvah in the Torah, not simply a nice thing to do. In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, we are taught: “Judge every person favorably.”1

Is it easy? Not for most people, especially since most of us have not been properly trained to do so. To judge favorably, we need to work on ourselves to change the way we think. But it’s clearly worth the effort, and learning to think and act positively will serve us in good stead in all kinds of situations. Moreover, by judging favorably, we merit to be judged similarly by G‑d.

Not only does judging favorably change our outlook, but it can actually create change in the person who is demonstrating the negative behavior.

Recent research indicates that feedback is most effective when focused on the positive. Telling people what they do wrong and how to improve simply does not work effectively. Pointing out their strengths, on the other hand, gives them what they need to build upon to do even better—even up to a 180-degree change.

Many parenting and relationship books are full of one of the best known motivators: the “catch-them-doing-something-good-and-comment” method.

Although mastering this skill is not so simple, I would like to suggest something that is an enhanced form of judging favorably: develop and embellish the bit of good you do observe. In other words, seek out any glimmer of positivity in the undesirable action and expand upon it.

I decided to try this technique in our home and waited for my opportunity. It came when I was trying to empty my freezer and use up our frozen bread. I microwaved it with some cheese and offered it to one of my adolescents, who shrugged and said, “If no one else wants it, I’ll have it.”

Meanwhile, some of the younger ones were around the table, and I didn’t really notice who was eating what. I just kept making more and more. Apparently, my teenager was missing it all as the little ones grabbed it fast. As I was serving a third or fourth batch, my teenager said, “I’ll make sure to get some this time,” and he sprinkled it all with hot peppers. As he did, my 6-year-old burst into tears.

I wanted to reprimand the older one for being selfish. My natural instinct was to protect the younger sibling and tell the teen that he should have communicated better. But luckily, I remembered to ascribe positive motives.

I went over to the 6-year-old and said, “Your brother didn’t mean to take anything away from you. He meant to share; he even said in the beginning that anyone can have some.”

I felt like I was exaggerating; I didn’t exactly believe what I was saying, but … miraculously, the big brother attempted to wipe off the hot peppers. My 6-year-old calmed down, leaving me amazed. I almost hadn’t judged my teen favorably. Had I reacted with a knee-jerk reaction and criticized him, I am certain he would have stormed angrily out of the room—and rightfully so!

I have seen similar results in other situations, such as teachers dealing with uncooperative students and others who deal with difficult people. The common thread is that the offense is totally ignored—not even commented on—and a positive motive is revealed and magnified. Because, truthfully, at their core, each of us is good and really wants to act accordingly.

So here is a plan of action on how to ascribe positive motives:

  • On your way to a meeting, or before someone who triggers you comes your way, prepare mentally to think before reacting.
  • Review in your mind your desire to find a positive aspect to the next occurrence of challenging behavior.
  • Find some positive motive, no matter how tiny.
  • Remember to magnify and reflect back the goodness of the deed or words, although it may not come across that way.
  • Expose and expand upon the small point of virtue; develop and embellish it as you respond.
  • The individual may feel, “I didn’t realize that I was thinking that way,” and your positive words will hopefully help them rise to the occasion in this situation and future ones.

By making a concerted effort to ascribe positive motives, you may find yourself truly amazed both at the initial reaction and the longer-term fruits of your well-thought-out words.