We all judge all the time, consciously and unconsciously. We are judgy about others and ourselves.
In mindfulness we practice bringing attention in a special way that is intentional and non-judgmental. What does it mean to be non-judgmental? One explanation is that we all have judgments and mindfulness is being aware of them so we can choose our reactions. This aspect of mindfulness has been most hard to understand and practice. A recent encounter made me stop to examine — was I truly being non-judgmental or was I being judgy and hiding behind the veil of mindfulness. When does observation turn to judgment turn to wanting to change someone’s behavior turn to becoming a form of aggression? And why is it important to pay attention to judgments?
The Judgment Continuum
Which of the following statements sound like judgments to you?
- Animals in most factory farms are treated badly.
- The way animals are treated in factory farms makes me sad.
- Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, I prefer not to eat meat.
- Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, a vegetarian diet is the best for everyone.
- Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, everyone should become vegetarian.
- Those who eat meat don’t care about animals and our environment. They are not welcome in my house.
Each of the above statements is a judgment of some sort. However, it varies in what it involves and intensity. What I realized was that judgments fall on a continuum. Not all judgments have adverse effects. Judgments occur naturally based on our past conditioning and experiences but we always have some control over how we choose to act on them. Albeit, control gets more and more difficult as we move along the continuum.
Breaking judgment into these different levels on a continuum offers a framework to navigate difficult conversations for the speaker and listener.
Animals in most factory farms are treated badly.
Let’s say you make this statement to a friend. This statement can be a simple observation for you based on what read or saw in a documentary. However, your friend may take that to be a judgment against her based on her perception of self and situation. For example, if your friend is a factory farm owner, she may assume that you are judging the way she treats her animals, especially if she has been previously told that she treats animals badly. Your simple observation can feel like a judgment against her sense of self — that has been shaped by her past experiences in childhood and as an adult —and the natural response is to resist. How she resists will also be based on her habitual ways of dealing with discomfort. It could vary from shutting down, to avoiding the conversation, to becoming defensive and aggressive.
2. Observation + Feelings
The way animals are treated in factory farms makes me sad.
Now you are adding how you feel about your observation. Because their is some emotion involved, the simple observation can feel more judgy to your friend. It may make her feel guilty, not only because she doesn’t treat animals well as people’s expectations from her, but now she is responsible for causing discomfort to her friend.
3. Observation + Feelings + Preference
Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, I prefer not to eat meat.
Now your preference to not eat meat is seen as not only a judgment against your friend’s choice to eat meat but also has implications for her livelihood. What if people start becoming vegetarian, what will happen to her factory farm? This may be not only a threat to her sense of self as a good person but also her competence to run a sustainable business.
4. Observation + Feelings + Preference + Convinced There Is One Best Way For All
l Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, a vegetarian diet is the best for everyone.
In this scenario you are convinced that there is only one solution to end factory farming and that is for everyone to become vegetarian. You may still not be wanting to impose your solution on your friend but you are fixated on the single solution.
5. Observation + Feelings + Preference + Convinced There Is One Best Way For All + Expectation that others behaviors should align to my way
Because of the condition of animals in factory farms, everyone should become vegetarian.
In this statement there is all of the above elements and an expectation that people will change their behaviors to align with your way — the one and only solution to ending factory farming.
6. Observation + Feelings + Preference + Convinced There Is One Best Way For All + Expectation that others behaviors should align to my way + Seeing those who disagree as the enemy
Those who eat meat don’t care about animals and our environment. They are not welcome in my house.
At this point in the Judgment Continuum, you are seeing anyone who eats meat as a villain, the other, or an enemy. This form of judgment is most harsh and accompanied by aggressive speech and behavior. This is the kind of judgment that leads to religious wars, for example.
How Awareness of The Judgment Continuum Can Help
Levels 1 — 3 in the Judgment Continuum involve judgments that occur naturally because of past experiences and conditioning and don’t involve much intensity for the speaker but may involve a reaction in the listener based on their sense of self and their situation. In the book, Difficult Conversations, the authors identify three identities that most commonly feel threatened when a person is triggered:
- Am I a good person
- Am I worthy of love and belonging
- Amy I competent
The speaker can be sensitive that even though you are sharing a simple observation with your feelings and preferences about the situation, the listener may be further along the continuum, making an assumption that you are saying this because you want them to change.
Communications breaks down when the speaker and listener are on different places on the Judgment Continuum.
Levels 4 —6 involve stronger emotions and attachment to a perspective in the speaker and are harder to change. They are likely to evoke stronger reactions in the listener.
Mindfulness Reminders For Speakers and Listeners
For The Speaker: When sharing something that involves a level 1 — 3 intensity, you can be more sensitive to the listener’s sense of self and situation. Even though you are sharing your personal views about something, it can come across to the listener as a harsh judgment if they have previously been exposed to similar judgments with harsh consequences. Now you may not always know a person’s past, so you may innocently say something that triggers a person, in which case be aware of the body language and feelings. Any sense of defensiveness in the listener, is a signal to stop. Be kind always. Even the people we think are strong and powerful have vulnerabilities.
For The Listener: If you hear someone sharing their thoughts, feelings, and preferences, don’t automatically assume that your interpretation is what the speaker means. It is possible that the speaker is not judging you harshly or wanting you to change. Bring curiosity to the situation and clarify what the speaker means. How you are interpreting others judgments is based on your self-perceptions often shaped by your experiences in the past.
At levels 4 — 6 on the Judgment Continuum, the speaker has stronger emotions and attachment to his/her point of view. This can evoke stronger reactions in the listener as well creating a bigger divide between the two people.
For The Speaker: As soon as you find yourself generalizing or attached to a single solution, you can bring curiosity to your own self-talk. You may be saying that you are not judging and are only sharing your point of view, but examine if there is a motivation and expectation that the listener will change their behavior in accordance with what you think is best. Notice how strongly attached you are to your perspective. Is there any space to hear others’ worldview and experience? What are your intentions underlying what you stated?
For The Listener: Notice your reactivity to the speaker — your inner talk, emotions, and body sensations. Are you reacting to the speaker or the judgment you have about yourself? See if you can separate your own self-judgments from the speakers’ judgment. That will give you clarity how to move forward in the conversation. You may start with sharing the emotions this conversation is bringing up for you or your self-judgments or a memory of such judgments from the past. When you share your feelings and experience, without judgment or blame, you are inviting the speaker to a shared space of exploration. If you find the speaker is still not listening to your experience, you may choose to make the person aware of that or to walk away from that conversation, with kindness to yourself and others It is helpful to remember that the other person is also the outcome of their upbringing and experiences. They may not have the capacity to listen because of their challenging circumstances in the past.
The Judgment Continuum could be used in a dyad or a group dynamic to explore where each one is coming from to have a deeper conversation without letting emotions hijack the conversation. Whether you engaged in the exploration together or on your own, it is important to examine your judgments about your self and others. As highlighted in this article, Are You Addicted To Being Judgy,
“If you allow critical judgments to remain unexamined, they can come to occupy many of your thoughts and emotions, and even your dreams. But if you examine them, you’ll find repetitive themes that are connected to earlier life events and discover that even your judgments regarding others are often rooted in self-judgment or events that happened earlier in your life—sometimes when you were very young.”