We are all surrounded by words and conversations full of judgment. Whether they are about the quality of our coffee or a crucial business decision, they can sting and send us spinning in frustration, anger, or embarrassment. Often times we don’t even realize we are doing it.
We all have judgmental patterns that reflect our beliefs, opinions, prejudices, and fears. These patterns, many of which we didn’t consciously choose, are responsible not only for our judgments of others but also for our judgment of ourselves. Our parents, who largely shaped our characters, established acceptable behavior standards and taught us the rules of the road. Their voices—and the voices of our teachers and mentors—carry a lot of weight. We carry those words with us and they have power.
As young children, we received their judgments as the truth, and over time we slowly adopted stories like, “I’ll never measure up,” “I’m hopelessly disorganized,” or “I’m not good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough.” We unconsciously adopted stories that define our worthiness or capabilities. My grandfather’s message to me was that I wasn’t a big enough man. I believed that story for a long time, until as an adult, I was finally able to see it as an opinion rather than the truth and purge myself of it. His voice is still in my head, but I’ve learned to ignore it because I recognize that it doesn’t serve me.
Our negative judgments of others are the other side of the coin. The more internal stress that our inner critic causes, the more we project that out into the world. One of my clients grew up with a highly judgmental mother. In our work together, my first job was to help him recognize his internal judgments that he carried from his mother’s criticisms and break out of them. He recognized his judgment patterns and eventually realized they weren’t true. Slowly, his self-doubting stories diminished, and he could turn his attention to how this pattern played out when judging others.
Observing our judgments can set us free and, in turn, allow us to interact with others with more empathy and kindness. Here are four things we can do to minimize our judgments:
Become a keen observer of your judgmental patterns
Do your patterns of judging others reflect behaviors you don’t like or won’t recognize about yourself? To answer that question, note the triggers that set you off, then name them. Two big ones for me are lateness and incompetence. If a cable guy can’t fulfill my request or a colleague is late, I can feel the unfair critique building in my head and body. It takes courage—and curiosity—to catch and manage your judgmental patterns. But the effort can change a stressful pattern and increases your ability to accept others.
Get familiar with your private conversation by investigating the thinking behind your judgments
Behind every judgment—directed inward or outward—are opinions lurking in the background of our minds. Asking yourself these four questions about your inner dialogue and judgments is a great way to unearth and learn from those lurking opinions:
- What desires might be driving my judgment?
- What are my concerns about the future?
- Are power issues impacting my opinion?
- What standards might be driving my judgments?
Our patterns of judgment rely heavily on what we want to happen and what we don’t want to happen (our desires and aversions). When our wants line up with reality, all is well. But when what we want and what happens are at odds, we suffer. Our concerns for the future can prematurely send us into a worry mode and reduce our ability to be present. Authority issues are hidden minefields. You most likely judge people differently, depending on the power you unconsciously assign to their voices. For example, you might reserve judgment of a friend you adore, but you might judge harshly a colleague vying for the same position you aspire to win. The standards that we have can serve us well, but they also drive our negative assumptions and judgments, unawares. My critic and impatient self reflects my standards.
Processing our inner thoughts is the trick for turning darkness into light. For every judgment you investigate, you might find a nugget of gold that turns a negative into something useful. Sear the four questions into your mind. They come in very handy when your stressed out about a conversation.
Remind yourself that you know little about most people
Socrates said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We know very little about most of the people we interact with. It’s helpful to remember that their opinions, actions, and behaviors reflect the whole of their history and experiences. Whatever they are doing is what they are capable of doing at that moment. Perhaps you judge them as incompetent, insincere, or unreliable (the three pillars of mistrust). But rather than automatically judging them, assume you don’t know why they are doing what they are doing, and invite them into a conversation where you can both share your desires, concerns, and standards.
Fall in love with questions
We’re all trained to advocate for our position and to defend our perspective. But your position isn’t the truth; it’s only one of many. By getting familiar with your own inner conversations and thinking more about your own judgments, you can learn to reveal the thinking behind it, by using the four questions, which opens our hearts and minds. You can invite others to follow by asking them the questions in an effort to understand their position and model collaboration and mutual understanding.
This is tough but important work that will increase your awareness of yourself, teach you to minimize your judgments of others, and transform disquieting conversations into productive, positive dialogue.