I heard someone the other day (outside of my work environment) saying they were non-judgemental. I noticed my physical response, a slight tension in my throat, my facial muscles tightened a little, a wariness emerged into my experience. As this person said they were non-judgemental, my level of trust towards what they might say or do very slightly weakened. I was in the process of being judgemental about their “non-judgementalness”. I became interested in both the position of being non-judgemental, and my own judgement on this, and the impact.
Maybe it is helpful to openly declare my hand; I have a view that we cannot NOT make meaning from what we see, hear, and more widely sense in the world. One way of framing this meaning making is to put it in terms of judgements. So, we make judgements based on what we experience; we may have a somatic response, or a thought may cross our mind. In fact, I would suggest we have to make sense of the world to know what to do next, to know whether to go forwards, backwards, or some other “…..wards”! We have to make judgements to know what we like, dislike, feel ambivalent about, to know what to feel and think.
If for a moment we can live with the idea that we may make judgements during our day-to-day lives, I would suggest that the first task in front of us is to become aware of our experience and how we judge the other.
It seems to me that the phrase “I’m non-judgemental” does more to close down the possibility of such awareness. Every iteration is different and relationship dependent; however, when I hear the phrase “I’m non-judgemental”, often I withdraw a little as I have determined from this phrase that the other person is not open to examining their honest experience and sharing this (I have an assertion/judgement that when in relationship with others, especially where dispute or conflict is concerned, it is best to try and find a supportive way to be honest about one’s own experience).
So how to become more aware? Our experience may be reflected in a bodily sensation, maybe an emergent thought, and I would encourage reflection upon our experience in the moment, to notice the judgements we make. In turn, this can give us a moment’s breathing space between judgement and action, or judgement and conclusion. As we do this, we open up the possibility of choice and agency over our subsequent actions. As time develops, this filter can be refined, so that it can be employed more in situations where we consider that our judgements may trip us up; where our judgements may prematurely close us off to the other.
To push back against any sense of absolutism that to assert oneself as “non-judgemental” is “bad”, it’s possible that the phrase “I’m non-judgemental” is often used to reflect an aspiration, such as “I aspire to accept you as, and for who, you are, though sometimes I will fail in this”. As I write this, I reflect both on how context dependent language often is, and the complexities of language, of meaning making, of how we connect and communicate in the world.
Once we are on the path to becoming more aware of our judgements, one possible next step is expression; as we become more aware, how do we then express ourselves to the other person in ways that we can be heard, particularly where we may feel anxious about this expression? For the past 18 months I have worked with a colleague having face-to-face dialogue for 90 minutes at a time. Part of the practice is to be very open with each other in our reactions, responses, assessments, judgements. From this I have noticed how sharing many of my own judgements, my meaning-making, can feel risky. For now, the best place I can point you towards is Nonviolent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg), or Difficult Conversations (Patton, Stone, Heen). I’m sure many of you will have your own favourite reference authors/practitioners too.
Another possible step as we become aware of our judgements is to become curious. What I am wanting to do is to stay open to the other, so I can maintain a relationship in circumstances where this may be essential to our personal or professional life. As I hear someone say “I’m non-judgemental”, if I can stay aware in that moment my curiosity could take me to a place of, “that’s caught my attention, what does non-judgemental mean for you?”
One other part of this nuanced exploration is also to begin to become interested in how we may judge ourselves, and how our assessments of others may relate to our assessments of ourselves…..which you’re probably glad to hear by this stage of the article, I’m going to keep as a conversation for another day.
The essence of this article is to encourage you to maintain an open channel of communication in situations where you may actually experience a desire to do the opposite, to turn away. go-dialogue is committed to supporting our capacity for increased personal awareness, and hence our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with others; that this understanding can feed our mutual growth in a truly reciprocal process. I consider that it is through relationship that we are able to move on from troubles and shackles that may hold us back.