The Plus Sign

There is a gem in Ignatian spirituality that often goes unnoticed. It’s sometimes called the plus sign. And it’s not just a spiritual practice, it’s a good life practice to have in all your relationships. The Ignatian plus sign is also called the presupposition and comes from annotation 22 in Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Here’s a contemporary version of it:

For a good relationship to develop … a mutual respect is very necessary. … Every good Christian adopts a more positive acceptance of someone’s statement rather than a rejection of it out of hand. And so a favorable interpretation … should always be given to the other’s statement, and confusions should be cleared up with Christian understanding.

(David Fleming, SJ, Draw Me Into Your Friendship)

Basically it says: Give others the benefit of the doubt. This can be very difficult, especially for me. When someone says something that rubs me the wrong way I can be quick to judge and quick to spin their statement into one that had intent to hurt. Look at all the spin that occurs in politics and media. Spin is always around us and we, too, can tend toward spinning others’ words, twisting or misinterpreting the person’s intention.

Given the complexity of our bodies and minds and past experiences, all of us interpret the world and one another’s statements and actions differently. Relationships are complex. We are fragile sinners, humans who make mistakes. We must understand this if we are going to make an effort to “plus-sign” what others say to us. See, I think people are generally good and have positive intentions. Sadly, there is a lot of mistrust in the world because we tend to see on the news those with malicious intent: the murderers, the thieves, the abusers, the frauds.

I think the truth is, most people have good intentions. How often have you said something with good intentions to realise that the other person feels hurt by it? “But I didn’t mean it that way!” you might say. Saint Ignatius encourages the receiver of such a statement to make the most favourable interpretation, to assume you meant the best. And, if they are still confused and unable to “plus-sign” they should ask you what you meant by it.

Others may not be so quick to plus-sign, but as Christians we want to be sure to plus-sign others. Next time you are hurt by what someone says, assume they had good intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully the chances are that they did have good intentions. If you just can’t seem to find a favourable interpretation, let them know that you felt hurt by their statement and ask them how they meant it when they said it. Plus-signing is a first step to positive communication in all your relationships. Assume the best and reconcile if needed.

Listen to an audio version of this post… 


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2 replies

  1. I think the most difficult thing is when the person to whom you try to give the “plus-sign” is consistently unwilling to reciprocate that attitude to you or to others. Moreover, when one has felt hurt and tries to follow up (i.e. “let them know that you felt hurt by their statement and ask them how they meant it when they said it”) it can be the case that they are simply not open to a conversation on the matter. But I think it’s important to try nevertheless.

    It’s not just “the Christian thing to do”, as in a duty. Consistently giving the “plus-sign” is really the only way to counter the insidious advance of cynicism in our lives, where we can slide away from hope in the goodness of (at least certain) other people. The discipline of extending the benefit of the doubt to others makes room for hope in our daily lives. It keeps us in that Easter / Resurrection space — of hoping in what ordinarily may seem unbelievable.

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