How judgementalism gets in the way of changing behaviour

It is an eternal truth that nobody likes being negatively judged. Even if the judgement is ultimately correct or has elements of truth and you know it, the hackles rise, you are offended and you reject out of hand what is being said. Everything- truth, shards of truth and the rubbish- is chucked on the garbage heap- “what do they know?”

Just as much as we don’t like being negatively judged, we also all have a daily struggle with being the judger. When does judging in the sense of coming to an opinion or conclusion cross over into judgementalism, having or displaying an excessively critical point of view? Where is the ‘excessive’ line drawn?

When dealing with young people, particularly the more disengaged and difficult ones, it is very easy to be judgemental. Their behaviour has a way of bringing to the fore our sense of what is right and wrong. But is being judgemental the best way to help them? As with most things, if we look at our own personal experiences and how we relate with others, what applies to us applies to them too.

When you consider situations where someone (which could be yourself!) has been perceived to be judgemental several things become apparent. Usually the most judgemental people have some interesting ideas to share. They are clearly passionate about an issue which usually makes for engaging conversation. You might not agree with their ideas, but it gets the mental juices flowing and forces you to assess your opinions and beliefs to see if they make sense or not, and if necessary to adjust them. That’s called having an open mind. At this point, the conversation is interesting, devoid of judgementalism. However, as soon as their ideas take on an excessively critical edge or are delivered in such a way that there is no consideration for the feelings and viewpoints of those present, then it stops being an open exchange of ideas and becomes a self-righteous moral crusade, and let’s face it, no one likes those. All of a sudden their opinions are more important than anyone else’s because they are more ‘right’. Judgementalism kills the debate.

So instead of minds being enlightened, thoughts and opinions being challenged, horizons being broadened, and the possibility of change and improvement taking place, people are offended and mental shutdown occurs. We don’t listen, we reject all of the ideas due to the method of delivery, even if there was some validity in what was being expressed and the end result is that nothing changes. In short, we stagnate. Nothing has been achieved other than a whole load of offence and damaged relationships. This is a massive waste of potential. In the exchange that person has had no impact, they have taken a potentially large amount of influence and wasted it on self-righteousness.

So in expressing our views, judgementalism gets in the way. Self-righteousness prevents the effective exchange of ideas and causes unnecessary hurt. We can avoid self-righteousness by considering the feelings of those present.

Lose the person TW

We can also avoid self-righteousness by coming to our conclusion or judgements on an issue in a charitable manner. We form judgements or opinions on a daily basis from simple things like which cake looks nicest to judging that the old man on the bus really needs to have a wash, to judging that a way a young person has behaved is deplorable and shows little regard for the needs or rights of others. (The response to the UK Summer riots in 2011 springs to mind). And if we are honest with ourselves we often are quick to judge without due consideration of context and background and why something might be the way it is. And by failing to do that our judging can also take a self-righteous turn. The end judgement or conclusion might be the same, but by failing to judge charitably with due consideration for context we do them and ourselves a disservice.

If we do not consider the context and the feelings, the humanity of those we judge then we are slap-dash judgers. We don’t care about them as people and are more concerned with how good and clean we are. And if we are slap-dash judgers then we have little consideration for what we can do to help them.

What this world needs is people who see something like the dirty smelly man on the bus, or the young person engaging in anti-social behaviour, comes to a judgement that this is not right and rather than just talking about it THEN DOES SOMETHING ABOUT IT. People who consider that the reason why the man is dirty and smelly is because he has no hot water at home because he is very poor, and then decides to donate to Age Concern. People who consider that the reason why young people are engaging in anti-social behaviour is because their parents don’t give a stuff about them and never have and they are desperate for someone to notice them, and then decides to setup a youth club, or donates to charities like the Princes Trust who want to take notice of them. When we consider the context and the humanity of those we judge, our potential self-righteousness is transformed into action to change the world in which we live and in the case of working with young people, that can be one life at a time. Judgementalism is transformed into compassion.

So in discussing and challenging other people’s views in all spheres of life, I would argue that we need to consider their feelings, and the context and the humanity of those we discuss. In doing so we avoid self-righteousness judgementalism, which blocks the free-flow of ideas and prevents the possibility of change.
So how to apply this to working with young people? How do you interact with the young people in your sessions with them when they tell you something they have done that you disapprove of, or when you are addressing previous negative behaviours. Do you sit in self-righteous judgement, morally crusading? E.g. “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “Who gave you the right to…”

Do you find that this approach works, or do you more often than not, get a ‘fuck off’ or if you are lucky, absolutely no interaction and engagement from the young person at all? Either way, it’s mental shutdown and you can be sure you are having no influence on them at all. I promise you that they will be thinking, “What the fuck do you know?”

Alternatively, if you remove any sense of moral superiority and simply discuss the issue without personal judgement or self-righteousness their closed minds will begin to open. By doing this, you are showing them that you value their opinion, which is a powerful message to send them and they will come to respect you. You will find that these young people find your listening abilities magnetic- at last they have found someone who will listen to them. Once you demonstrate that you recognise they have feelings, opinions and are human and they realise that you are going to respectfully listen to them, then they start to listen back. By helping them explore why they behave the way they do, you are showing them that you are interested in their context and are not sitting in callous judgement. This is when your influence pot starts boiling over.

For example, if discussing violent outbursts explore with them why they might get angry and why they think they do what they do. You can then explain other methods that people draw on to cope with their anger and why they use these other methods- e.g. taking a time out because then they can calm down, better express themselves and explain why they are upset to that person, actually resolve the issue, and no harm is done to anyone.

You don’t have to say that you disapprove (they will probably know that anyway) or that you think they are behaving horribly and selfishly. By showing them objectively the alternatives to their behaviour and why most people use these other methods, and how their current methods negatively impact others, you are helping them to come to the above conclusions for themselves. You keep their minds open, you help them explore other ideas without fear of retribution, to reconsider their views and opinions, and therefore help them to change and grow. And as time goes on you may find that the boy or girl that just sat and scowled at you at first, actually starts to independently ask your opinion. When this happens you have entered the influence super-league.

The saying goes that crime doesn’t pay. My message today is that judgementalism doesn’t pay. Be rich in compassionate influence instead.

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