Passing Judgment Is Easy, But Truly Understanding Is Much More Difficult

Exercise caution in judgment but never in understanding.

For years I taught an intensive five-day, fifty-hour course in “Interpersonal Communication.” It would start at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday and go until midnight, Wednesday through Sunday. It was a powerful course, and I would put my whole heart and soul into the course, doing everything I could to help the participants make quantum leaps forward in their personal and professional development.

Not to brag, but it was a great course. Even now, years later, hardly a month goes by where I don’t hear from some of those students. They keep on telling me how much the course impacted them years ago and how much it continues to affect them in very positive ways.

Because of the course’s power and popularity, there was a three-year waiting list to get into it. I could only offer it eight times a year, and with a maximum of forty people per class, the backlog of participants kept growing.

Despite that long wait, occasionally people would get into the class that didn’t want to be there. Perhaps their boss forced them to attend, or maybe they saw the class as a quick way to grab some college credits.

Whatever the rationale, if a person didn’t get involved in the class, if a person didn’t appear as though he wanted to be a part of the class, I would get judgmental. I would think, “I’m giving you everything I’ve got. I’m giving my very best. So student, get with it!”

That’s what I was thinking about Steve. When he entered my class, he was about 28 years of age, and he looked like my stereotype of a “jock.” He was a big, strong, muscular-looking athlete. He even acted like my stereotype of a “jock.” He appeared cool, aloof, even a bit arrogant or superior. As the rest of the class got involved in a number of communication exercises, he wouldn’t participate.

I got even more judgmental. In my head I began to think, “There’s a great big waiting list of people who want to be in this class, so don’t take their spot. Get involved, Steve, or get out!”

I didn’t say any of those things, but that’s what I was thinking — until the fourth day of the five-day class. Steve opened up and made his first comment. He said when he was back in grade school, he was the puniest, weakest kid there. He had a disease that stunted his growth and atrophied his muscles. As a result, he was constantly picked on and teased by the other kids.

Steve continued. He said he got so sick of being picked on, he began working out on weights, two hours a day every day. In fact he followed the regimen for years and continued to follow it. Unfortunately, the regimen had taken so much of his time that he never had much time left over for people.

Suddenly it dawned on me. Steve wasn’t acting cool and aloof. His lack of class participation wasn’t due to some supposed arrogance that I had imagined. For heaven’s sake, Steve was shy.

He had worked hard for many years to get his body in shape, and he had accomplished that goal. He was coming to the class to learn more about connecting and communicating with people. And he was thinking he could learn that by sitting quietly on the sidelines rather than participate.

Until I understood where he was coming from, I wasn’t very effective as his teacher. I wasn’t modeling the warmth, acceptance, and encouragement he needed. I had judged him, found him lacking, and dismissed him.

What I began to learn that day is that I SELDOM HAVE ENOUGH DATA TO PLAY GOD, to pass judgment on someone else. When I get the whole story, or when I get more information, I find that my judgment decreases. I may not always like what I learn about another person, but invariably, my increased understanding makes a cooperative relationship much more likely.

The trouble is, judgment is easy. It just takes a split second to stereotype someone, judge someone, or form an impression of someone. It doesn’t take any work. And once the judgment is made, it’s mighty easy to keep on seeing that person in the same light.

By contrast, understanding takes work. It takes work to dig in, find out who a person really is, and understand his intentions as well as his actions. It takes specific communication tools and strategies, skills that I teach in my program on “The Relationship Recipe: Rapport, Respect, and Recognition.”

But I’ll warn you, it takes a while to master the skills of understanding. I thought I learned my lesson from Steve, but I had to learn it all over again when Norma came to class.

When I first saw Norma, I saw a 5 foot 2 inch woman who weighed about 250 pounds. I immediately judged her and thought, “Go on a diet. Take care of yourself. Get some exercise.”

Now I’m not proud to admit that I was that shallow. But that’s how my mind was working at the time. It was making snap judgments on just about everyone and everything.

Then Norma made a comment in class. She said, “I feel so good about myself. Last year I weighed 298 pounds, and I’m down to 249 right now.” And there went my judgment. My new understanding of her situation moved me from judgment to respect.

As I’ve gradually grown up and matured over the years, I’ve found out that most of my stereotypes and snap judgments have been wrong. When I take the time to really understand what is going on, my compassion and respect almost always goes up and my frustration almost always goes down.

I suspect that my learning applies to you as well. So if you want a calmer life and better relationships, if you want to be more effective in working with others, EXERCISE CAUTION IN JUDGMENT BUT NEVER IN UNDERSTANDING.

Action:  Select two people that you tend to judge somewhat negatively. Then commit ten minutes to each of them this week, and try to understand their point of view. Try to see life from their perspective. You don’t have to like, agree, or approve of what you learn. Just try to understand them for a few minutes as you hold back on your judgment. Then notice what happens to your feelings and the quality of your relationship with them. I think you’ll find some positive changes in your feelings and in your relationship.