Columns , Leadership

The slippery slope of judgment

Some of our richest and most helpful learning comes after our failures or someone else’s. A little humor can help.

The slippery slope of judgment
Getting caught up in a series of judgments about judgment can be easy, just like the endless reflections in barbershop mirrors.

This time around, we’re focusing on a potentially more sensitive topic: the consequences of judging others and ourselves. As always, the intent behind the thoughts we share here is to support more “flow,” or the state where we are fully present and meeting the challenges of the moment with a calm, clear focus and access to all our resources.

Judgment is an essential, fundamental human activity. Our goal isn’t to eliminate judgment but rather to be more conscious of the types of judgments we make so that we can better discern whether they enhance or detract from our overall well-being.

Judgment of Others

Let’s be real. When other people do what we can’t help but see as stupid or harmful, we’re bothered. And when others take actions that are in direct conflict with the values we hold especially dear, those actions can feel like a personal attack. In a world where conflict is guaranteed, this simple stimulus-response mechanism is inevitable. So, where does that leave us if our goal is to invite more flow into our lives?

One way of looking at judgment is to see it as welcoming or resisting a circumstance that life presents to us. We all want more of what we like in life and less of what we don’t. But the reality for everyone is that life keeps serving up heaps of both.

If that’s the case, then perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Can I just get more of what I like and less of what I don’t?” because the answer is, at best, “Maybe for a while.” Perhaps a more beneficial question would be “How can I best be at peace no matter what is happening?” If that’s the more useful question, then it’s very hard to see how engaging in judgment will be the better answer, especially when we contrast the feelings of being entrenched in a negative judgment state with the feelings of being in flow.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

One way to reduce the intensity level of our judgment of others is to acknowledge that others see life through a completely different lens. We each have our subjective realities that are influenced by our unique experiences, backgrounds, mindsets, strengths and weaknesses. Given those often significant differences, it would be impossible for each of us to interpret events in the same way, and so our reactions to events often differ as well.

Scholar and Feldenkrais practitioner John C. Hannon offers another tool for responding to the actions or inactions of others. He suggests, “Perhaps distinguishing between analysis and judgment will be helpful.”

“What if judgment is best seen as an emotional varnish that our prejudices, almost instantly, deposit on our perceptions?” he says. “Perhaps these shift our mental processes from discernment into something different. In those instances, I believe humor helps us reclaim enough patience, perspective and compassion for us to see the joke is on us when we judge. We’re the ones left with a bad taste in our mouths.”

Judgment of Self

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.” — Brené Brown

A former American Express executive told a story of how a promising and talented young employee made a mistake that cost the company $250,000. After the team learned of the mistake, all eyes were on the executive to see how he would respond. Inevitably, everyone asked the same question: “Are you going to fire him?” And to everyone, the executive had the same response: “Fire him? Why would I fire him? We just paid a quarter of a million dollars to train him.”

Like the young AmEx employee, we all make mistakes. If we take a moment, all of us can recall something we did or failed to do that, using hindsight, we acknowledge was a mistake. Some of our richest and most helpful learning comes through such experiences. Note that the learning is not a function of the punishment but rather the awareness of the mistake. The young AmEx employee was not punished but learned a lesson that no doubt served him for the rest of his career.

Similarly, we serve no purpose in punishing ourselves when we see that we have made a mistake and instead can choose to embrace the wisdom that came from the experience. We serve no productive purpose in holding ourselves in contempt for our perceived mistakes, failings or weaknesses.

A Few Suggestions

“Out beyond the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. It’s the world full of things to talk about.” — Rumi

Years ago, Trey was interviewing a headmaster candidate who held the same role at another school. Trey asked the candidate what he felt his legacy would be at the other school, inviting the candidate to expound on all the things he had done to improve the school during his tenure.

Instead of listing typical resume fodder, the candidate had an interesting response. He paused and then said, “You know, I always feel like it’s been a good day if there’s been at least 10 good belly laughs.”

The school hired the candidate, and during his leadership it experienced what many viewed as the school’s finest hours. Joy and laughter were on an even footing with achievement and success. Discernment, balanced by humor and compassion, became the norm. The entire school community flourished. (Meanwhile, Trey is still trying to get to 10 belly laughs a day.)

Regardless of whether we are judging others or ourselves, the judgment state leads us to experience feelings and conditions that seem to be opposed to “flow.”

If the idea and feelings of flow have some positive resonance, then it might be helpful to at least notice when we have thoughts, words or actions that seem to pull us away from the flow state.

We acknowledge that judgment is an area that can be challenging to parse. Which judgments are helpful and necessary versus restrictive and harmful? Getting caught up in a series of judgments about judgment can be easy, just like the endless reflections in barbershop mirrors.

Perhaps a more helpful tool would be self-awareness regarding the effects of judgment, especially if our goal is to experience more flow.

Questions that you might want to consider include:

  • Am I remaining open and relaxed as I think about this situation?
  • Do I feel so angry that I have a hard time feeling or thinking about anything else at this moment?
  • Am I recycling the same judgmental thoughts over and over?

And a few antidotes that might be beneficial:

  • Look for the humor in the situation, no matter how seemingly absurd.
  • Acknowledge that almost everybody is doing the best they know how at that moment, even if mistakes are being made.
  • Acknowledge that you are doing the same.
  • Create more spaciousness through meditation, time in nature, relaxing your breath and doing the things that make you feel vibrant.

We hope you find some of these musings helpful, and we wish you many belly laughs.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders, a company offering leadership and coaching services. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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