Walking along a wooded path, an older man encounters a growling dog cowering near a tree. The man hurries past angrily while thinking to himself, “What sort of stupid dog owner has abandoned this animal? I can only imagine how it must have been mistreated.”
A few minutes later, a woman jogs by and sees the same ferocious, lunging dog. Having a longstanding fear of dogs, she stops, turns around and runs the other way.
Eventually a teenage girl happens upon the noisy dog. She’s curious as to why the dog is so distressed. She cautiously draws just close enough to see that his leash is tangled in the bushes next to the tree. The dog has furiously tried to free himself and has a deep abrasion on his side from the effort. “No wonder this poor dog is so worked up!” She takes out her cell phone and calls Animal Control for help.
This has always been a powerful story for me. That three people can interpret the same scene so differently is fascinating. The first two are quick to judge and react dismissively or fearfully. It’s only the teenager who seeks more information. She reserves judgment and asks questions instead.
Psychologist Tony Hacker writes, “We make judgments when we think we already know all we need to know…When our judgment includes strong disapproval or dislike, we become more dismissive and cynical.” The tendency to be judgmental can impinge on our ability to be happy.
We all react judgmentally at times, and for some it becomes an unconscious and therefore repeated pattern. Know a cynic or two? This is probably what’s going on in their brain.
In coaching, it’s paramount that the coach suspends judgment on the client’s situation. (Note we like to say “suspend” since “eliminate” is nearly impossible.) Without pronouncements or advice, the coach is able to listen more closely. This is where curiosity comes in. This process allows the coach help her client discover new ways of thinking.
Beyond coaching, curiosity opens our minds to understanding the world around us. It allows us to gather the back story and then formulate an honest opinion. It helps us practice empathy. It reminds us to put ourselves in another’s shoes.
Judgment, on the other hand, doesn’t care about extenuating circumstances. Judgment is based on assumptions. The man in the story assumed the dog had been abused. The jogger assumed all dogs want to bite her. This type of thinking, though it can be destructive, happens in order for us to make sense of the world. Our brains want to find answers to the unknown because it makes us feel safer.
In Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements, the third agreement is Make No Assumptions. It’s pretty fundamental to our relationships with others and to the world around us. By avoiding assumptions, we stay curious and help prevent misunderstandings and disappointment.
The first step in personal growth is always awareness. Next time you find yourself passing judgment on a stranger, colleague or loved one, back up and look for assumptions. Ask yourself what else you would need to know to create an informed opinion. It takes practice and compassion to stop ourselves from jumping to conclusions. Yet both will eventually lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of people, places and things that are different from us.
Hacker, Tony. Curiosity, Not Judgment, Leads to Understanding, The Seattle Times, June 2, 2013.
Ruiz, Miguel Angel, M.D., (1997) The Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book), Amber-Allen Publishing (San Rafael, California).
on a different note: Judgement vs. Judgment