Suspend judgment for better relationships

Judge Judy

This is one of those posts that, if I could send it to my younger self, could have changed my life.

We’re going to deal with two related and yet entirely separate issues, but at the same time: judgment and rush to judgment.

Humans seem to have an innate need to form opinions and judgments. Do you agree with that statement? Do you see how quickly you form an opinion? Because almost inevitably, you immediately had a response to my question about agreement.

That’s not necessarily a problem. The problem for communication comes in because a judgment can get in the way of hearing.

I see this in class. If I tell students I spent ten years as a minister, I can almost see switches of conclusion-jumping throwing across the class. Some of them assume, “Oh, this guy is a Christian, and those people are narrow-minded and intolerant, he’s not going to understand me, I have to be careful what I say and what topics I pick, etc.” Others assume, “Oh, cool, he’s a Christian like me! He’s going to believe just like I do about issue A, B, and C, and I can use certain code language that he will ‘get,’ and if I talk about certain topics I will get a better grade, etc.”

I do not have the time to go into all the ways in which so many of these assumptions are just wrong–in the sense of being incorrect, and in the sense of being bad. Suffice it to say that almost every assumption they make is wrong. But because they’ve made the assumption, and they’re not aware they’ve made an assumption, they will listen to me differently–maybe not even hear the same thing as people who make the opposite assumption.

(Let’s note that “assumption” and “judgment” are not the same thing, but are closely enough related for us to just move on.)

Many colleagues do everything they can to avoid letting any personal information into their classes for exactly this reason. I find it more useful to connect personally despite the problems, so I seek other ways to deal with it. Aside from the practicalities of teaching and dealing with the effects when audience members make judgments, I want to turn it back around. Recognizing this in audience behavior has made me much more aware of how I also engage in judgment, and what a problem it is for me.

An aside

One of the things I have learned from reading the work of James Altucher is this: I’m not trying to tell you what to do, because your mileage may vary. When I talk about what I’ve learned about communication or anything else, I’m just telling you what my experience has been, what has worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me, stuff I’ve read, etc. I offer it to you because it might be useful, but there’s no guarantee that things will work the same way for you that they have for me.

Where judgments interfere

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a situation with a co-worker. I’m going to be a bit circumspect because I respect her privacy, but I’ll try to tell you enough to give you context for our discussion.

I think highly of this colleague in a lot of ways, and I believe she looks at me as a mentor to at least some degree. I’ve noticed over the years that she doesn’t talk about her personal life much at all, and again, I respect that. Many of us keep our lives at home and at work as separate as possible, no problem. In the few conversations about home life, I noticed a pattern. She is very skilled at avoiding any use of personal pronouns in talking about her partner. She never mentions names. She said something about getting married not too long ago, but went into no detail.

Through a social media happenstance, I stumbled across verification that she married a woman. Let’s be real clear: this does not matter to me at all. However, I am concerned that she may be concerned that it matters to me. She knows about my years of ministry, she knows I’m active in a church, I’m an old fart, etc., etc.

In other words, I don’t want to pry at all. It just hurts (I don’t mean “offends”; I mean “pains”) that she may not know she can trust me. It hurts that she may feel like she has to hide who she is, or else I will not accept her.

It may just be habit–after all, I understand that people who don’t fit a statistical norm may learn to reflexively hide that variance as a survival strategy. I also understand valuing privacy–if you happen to be in a heterosexual relationship, I also don’t want to know all the details of that. Give me a break. So people may just not want to talk about their primary relationship, or their love of old cars, or their bowling league, or those lost years of drug addiction. If that’s all it is, wonderful. No one has to completely reveal themselves to anyone. There is such a thing as Too Much Information.

But if it’s not just habit, not just a general bid for privacy, if she feels like I won’t accept her, it will interfere with our own relationship, and I hope I haven’t done anything that leaves her with that impression.

Now, see, I don’t know you, and I don’t want to make judgments about you, but statistically speaking there is a great likelihood that you have already formed a judgment about what I should or shouldn’t do, whether she is doing something sinful, whether I should be supporting her, etc., etc. (I’m using a lot of etc., etc., but you realize, I hope, that real live human situations are very complicated.)

So I have to go back to another story from years ago, from a time when I was still actively involved in ministry.

Where judgment should focus

You may or may not know that people use ministers as sort of cheap (as in “free”) counselors. There are pastors who are really good at counseling, but that’s not necessarily part of the skill set. Still, it happens.

One time, a couple came to my office for some “marriage counseling.” Most of the time, “marriage counseling” meant that one spouse wanted me to tell the other spouse he or she was doing something wrong.

So picture this scene: They are sitting across from me, both of them with Bibles, and both of them quoting Scripture. I have a headache, and I’m generally not feeling well. They are both picking around Ephesians 5. If you’re not familiar with that, the chapter has a lot to say about husbands and wives and how they should deal with each other.

He is mostly reading out loud Ephesians 5:22-24, which is telling wives how they should behave.

She is mostly reading out loud Ephesians 5:25-31, which is telling husbands how they should behave.

Of course, each is focusing on how the other spouse is failing to fulfill those passages.

After listening to this for awhile with a throbbing head, I interrupted, and said, “I think I see what the problem is.” I reached over and took the Bible out of his hands, took the Bible out of her hands, and swapped them, leaving him with a Bible in a zip-up pink flower-and-paisley cover with handles like a purse, and her holding a massive black-leather-bound, gold-edged, thumb-indexed Bible. They both looked at me, confused.

I said, “Y’all got your Bibles mixed up.”

Looking at him, I said, “You don’t need to be reading what she is supposed to do. You just need to read what the husband is supposed to do.”

Then I looked at her, and said, “You’re the one who needs to read what the wife is supposed to do. Don’t worry about that husband passage.”

I love it when I see a light bulb go on. Sudden comprehension simultaneously registered on their faces. They looked at each other, like seeing each other for the first time since they came in, and without saying another word they got up and left my office.

I don’t know if that solved their problems. I do know it changed the way they approached them.

This is why judgments can be such a big problem from a communication standpoint. They keep you focused everywhere except on the one place in the universe you can really make a difference. You can’t change “them.” You can change you.

Do I have to stop believing anything?

This is already a long post, so I’m not going to go into many of the related issues around this topic. (I will put them into a mini-book if you would like to dig a little deeper with me. If you would like to get notified when it comes available, just add your name to the notification list, even if you have responded to that form before.) I will talk some more about some of the issues that divide us, how we can be true to ourselves without alienating other people, why it is that we fear being clear about our own beliefs, and why we feel compelled to either hide our judgments or else to insist upon them.

For now, here’s the practical take away: If you have to agree with someone about everything before you can be in relationships with them, you’re going to be pretty lonely, aren’t you?

There are two sides to this: judging others, and fearing being judged. It is a hugely complex human issue. It’s not going to get solved in one blog post, or one small book. But I believe confronting it, sooner rather than later, will enhance the quality of your life.

I hold my own opinions and beliefs, but I try to keep them corralled into the space of guiding my own actions. There is nothing that gives me the right to decide what you should do, and we will both be happier if I realize and remember this.

I’m going to get a little theological here. You see, just about everyone I’ve ever judged, God has given me the opportunity to find out what life is like on the other side of that judgment.

I used to think people with troubled children just didn’t care about their kids enough. Then I had a teenager with some mental health issues.

I used to think people who got divorced just didn’t try hard enough with their marriages. Then my first two fell apart, no matter how hard I tried.

I used to think depressed people just weren’t using the right “positive thinking” techniques. Then I got to wrestle with the realities of depression.

That’s why I don’t judge people who are addicted to drugs, for instance. I don’t want to find out what that’s really like.

Because I’m a believer, I express it this way: the Bible wasn’t written for me to decide what you are supposed to do. I have enough work just figuring out what I am supposed to do.

The same principle applies to you whatever your beliefs. When I say “suspend your judgments,” I don’t mean you shouldn’t hold certain values. Just don’t let them come in between you and other people. Life is difficult and complicated. Let’s help each other through it.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.