Gordon Dean, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, scrawled the following quote on the back of an envelope found beside him after his death in a plane crash. Never judge people, don’t type them too quickly, but in a pinch, always assume that a man is good and that at worst he is in the gray area between good and bad.
Wise words, realized only hours — possibly moments — before Mr. Dean tragically died. If you are reading this, then hopefully you have the luxury of more life to live — and to learn a valuable lesson from his final inspirations. The beautiful sentiment behind Mr. Dean’s quote is reflected in a chapter in our new book, Heart Centered Leadership, Lead Well, Live Well (Second Edition), entitled “Don’t Judge, Come to Understand.”
Here is a scenario to consider: You’re in a business meeting when suddenly you become agitated by a comment someone has made. Maybe it’s an affront toward you or your work, or possibly a sarcastic remark that comes out of nowhere. You bristle with agitation or roll your eyes as you think to yourself, what is wrong with them?
Unspoken diatribes soon follow.
A knee-jerk reaction… a simple act of judgment. Let’s face it — we’ve all done it.
It’s the sting of rejection at the most primal level that often makes us leap to judge another — a natural tendency to respond in our own defense.
And don’t think for a moment that they didn’t notice your reaction. One of the most intriguing things about human behavior is that many of us believe that we can hide our thoughts from others but nothing could be further from the truth. We can all sense when someone bears a grudge or dislikes us. Now you’re both in the same acrimonious boat.
So, how do we break the pattern of judgment and assumptions? The next time someone does something that exasperates you or makes a comment that raises your ire like fuel on the proverbial fire, instead of scowling or snapping, try taking a step back for a moment and attempt to come to understand their behavior. There is always another side to the story.
Ask yourself, what is really going on here? What would motivate this person to act in this manner? Was it what you said or did that drove them to make that disparaging remark? Next, was it truly about this particular issue? Or was it the twenty things that happened before this meeting? Was it more of a testament to the relationship that you have with this person? In other words, was the remark more of a symptom of several past conversations that went astray? This self-directed enquiry — accompanied by several deep, calming breaths — can help shift the mind out of frustration and judgment and into a more contemplative state of investigation.
Finally, what is the one step you could take to shift your relationship with this person? Remaining in judgment will keep your feet firmly planted in opposition, which doesn’t serve you or your relationship.
Believe it or not, it is possible to develop your empathetic ability. This process requires examining, then correcting, certain habits of mind (like taking sides of a conflict) and replacing them with more productive behaviors such as considering the perspective of both sides. It also means taking responsibility for your own manners of thinking, such as stereotypical, snap judgments and prejudices about how people “should” behave.
Here is a quick exercise to assist you with this process. Take a moment to think about a situation, either personal or professional, in which you may be judging someone rather than attempting to understand them or their point of view. Jot down your answers to the following:
What actions/behaviors is the other person demonstrating that you object to? (Talking behind your back, making critical remarks, ignoring you, producing sloppy work, coming in late).
What might you be thinking or doing in response to the other person? This may include name-calling, complaining, holding resentments or limiting your perspective (It’s his fault that… She doesn’t know what she’s talking about…) or generalizing (My company/friend/partner doesn’t support me… My coworkers are unfriendly… People here just don’t get along…), as well as expressing negative non-verbal communication (eye rolling, shaking your head, pursing your lips, sighing, looking away when the other person is speaking).
If you put yourself in their shoes, what might be some of the reasons for his or her behavior?
Is it really about this issue? What might be the bigger picture?
How could you respond to this person in a way that would serve you and the other person more effectively? Can you imagine a better outcome for the relationship?
Bottom Line: No two people are going to experience a given reality in the same way and sometimes long-term animosities can prevail. But when we lose our propensity to criticize, to always be right and we stop judging, interpreting, assuming, labeling and analyzing (how exhausting!), we shut down the noise in our head and get closer to what’s really going on. We certainly can’t control anyone but we can often exercise influence over our own mind — and it’s our own misguided thoughts and reactions that account for most of the problems we face.
It takes time and effort but if, instead of assuming and judging, we had the willingness to pause before jumping to conclusions and consider alternative viewpoints, we just might open up the possibility for more authentic, enriched interactions and relationships.