Judging non-judgment

By Martin Vogel

non-judgment day

All through my professional life, I have cultivated the quality of non-judgment. It’s a foundation of my work as a coach. Yet – as my increasingly trenchant views on this blog attest – I also appreciate space in which to exercise judgment and I facilitate others to do the same. Is it possible to value judgment and non-judgment simultaneously? I think so.

In my early career in journalism, I encountered the calling of objective reporting. At the BBC, non-judgment – in the form of impartiality – was at the core of its raison d’être. In my first weeks there, I was handed a booklet on how the corporation construes impartiality – and treasure still its intent, even (or especially) when the practice seems to fall short of the ideal. If impartiality means putting aside one’s biases as a journalist, it does not mean an absence of judgment. Editors make choices all the time in such matters as the stories they select for broadcast, their relative importance and the angles to pursue. An interesting issue is the boundary between impartiality in journalists’ work and their views as private citizens. The BBC is, perhaps reasonably, neurotic about this because certain sections of the press are only too ready to insinuate that a journalist who expresses opinions can’t be impartial at work. ITN also encounters problems with this. Ideally, it should be possible for the public to recognise that even journalists who express opinions in their private capacity are capable of acting with professional impartiality in their jobs.

One of the reasons why I took to coaching was because I recognised an affinity between its value of non-directivity and journalism’s impartiality. The role of non-judgment is of even greater importance in coaching. An environment of non-judgment is central to nurturing an individual’s self-development. This is emphasised again and again in the work of the psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, who insisted that demonstrating “unconditional positive regard” was the best way to encourage a person’s autonomy and growth.

“In almost every phase of our lives – at home, at school, at work – we find ourselves under the rewards and punishments of external judgments. ‘That’s good’; ‘that’s naughty.’ That’s worth an A’; that’s a failure.’ … Curiously enough a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one, since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad. So I have come to feel that the more I can keep a relationship free of judgment and evaluation, the more this will permit the other person to reach the point where he recognizes that the locus of evaluation, the centre of responsibility, lies within himself. The meaning and value of his experience is in the last analysis something which is up to him and no amount of external judgment can alter this.”

Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person

As in journalism, so in coaching: the central importance of non-judgment belies ways in which judgment comes into play. The coach holds a theory of change and facilitates a process that supports it. I hold in my head models of good practice about leadership, organisations and their role in society and these inevitably influence the questions I ask clients. But here’s the thing, what I think is neither here nor there. A coach must cultivate authentic professional disinterest in the direction a client might ultimately choose. This is because the coach is not living the client’s life and cannot perceive what the client perceives. So it makes sense for the coach to shed any attachment to the relevance of his or her opinions on the matter. The more I am able to do this, I notice, the easier it is for clients to open up and find themselves.

Carl Rogers strived, even in his own feelings to avoid evaluating a client. I don’t go this far. Judgments are an inescapable part of how the mind works – which is why non-judgment is an attitudinal foundation of mindfulness. The constant messages the mind generates – such as “I find this boring” or “I look fat in this” or “I’m enjoying this and I want it to continue” – can blow us off course if we identify too closely with them so it’s best to be aware of them rather than seek to avoid them. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says:

“When practicing mindfulness, it is important to recognize this judging quality of mind when it appears and to intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe it. When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

Trying to cultivate mindful non-judgment helps me to reduce my attachment to the opinions that might be in play when I work with people. Also, exposing the world to my judgmental self on this blog enables my clients too to be conscious of this and to apply their own discount factors to their experience of me. It can be helpful to cultivate judgment in the form of critique. People, in organisations or even in their personal life, are often caught up in situations that constrain their perception of what life could be. By offering them the possibility that life could be otherwise – not advocating a particular model – a coach can help clients see the possibility of change in what they might otherwise take to be a given reality.

More generally, judgment is an under-appreciated value in modern life. Computer modelling, grades, marks and numbers-based measurement are the default vehicles of assessment and we often treat them as if they speak for themselves. But they conceal assumptions and nuance which are matters of interpretation. Some things, such as the value of art, are resistant to quantitative analysis. Applying judgment opens space for qualities such as wisdom and context to be brought to bear on how we understand the world. In valuing non-judgment in its place, it would be a mistake to assume that it trumps judgment in all instances.

Image courtesy Tamara Evans.