As lawyers, judgment is something that is inextricably woven into the fabric of our work and our professionally trained minds. Spend a little time on social media, and you’ll see judgement is also increasingly a foundation of our broader society’s interpersonal discourse. Yet, as humans, this disposition doesn’t always serve us.
The other day, a friend was talking about their tendency to judge and to get frustrated in a dynamic work environment where things rarely go according to plan and perfect is always a bridge too far. They mentioned that, on the Myers-Briggs scale, their “judge” indicator was off the charts. I wouldn’t call it lamenting, exactly, but they were reflecting on the drawbacks, including that they found it hard to cut themselves a break as well.
In “Dare to Lead,” Brené Brown explains that we tend to judge most in others what we are most sensitive about ourselves. Usually, we find someone we deem to be doing worse than we are in that area to make ourselves feel better by comparison. Tara Mohr cautions that what we don’t allow in others, we don’t allow in ourselves and, with our judgment, we make the world unsafe for ourselves. In those areas, as well as more broadly. A world where things are “allowed” and “not allowed” is a world where we are not at liberty to simply be as we are.
I think the corollary is also true. If we can find a way to make space for others, we are in essence making more space for ourselves.
It is well documented that lawyers struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges at higher rates than the rest of the population. I think this is in part due to this intrinsic link between the profession and judgment. As we endure the Socratic method and the judgey eyes of our peers, we internalize (and perpetuate) the idea that anything less than perfect is not okay. Even shameful.
And, this is not exclusive to lawyers. Be honest. Have you not been in a conversation with friends or colleagues over lunch or coffee (even more so if cocktails) when someone starts in with a critique of someone else? It’s rarely of themselves, despite the way so many of us struggle with our own worthiness. It’s usually that colleague (not present) who did something frustrating or missed something important. Or maybe it’s that friend or the parent down the street who thwarts the status quo.
Think back on that conversation. (I know you’ve had one.) How did it feel in your body? What was the energy? And, what lingered?
I think it’s worth considering what it does to us when we judge. How it changes the way we experience the world. How it impacts the way we interact with others, including the people we love.
Imagine what the world would be like if we could pull this back. And, we can. We have a choice to live in a world where it is safe to be ourselves or one bound up in judgment. (*To a certain extent – I recognize that “safety” is relative and is also impacted by circumstance and systemic issues. I am speaking to the spheres in which we have control and influence.)
Here, I think recognizing the judge mindset as a close cousin of the inner critic, or maybe even the same voice cast in a different direction, is key. Judgement of others and self-judgement are often two sides of the same coin. The importance of awareness is that it allows you to see that judge as separate from your essential self, representing your (well-meaning but, perhaps, slightly misguided) safety instinct. As with the inner critic, it can be very powerful to explore where it’s coming from. Get curious. What is it that your safety instinct does not like about this situation or your circumstances? It can be hard to be charitable when our safety instinct is revving and we feel like our wellbeing is at stake. When we’re bound up in scarcity. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, when we can see this is coming from a vulnerable place, we can meet it with the witness and compassion needed to move into a more generative space.
We can also strive to meet others that way. One technique I like is listening to understand what is true for the other person, not to determine whether or not you agree. I.e., Not to judge.
In law and business, this often-overlooked perspective can add so much value. The lawyers are often thought of as coming in with all the reasons something is a bad idea or won’t work. “The department of ‘no’.” And the business is often cast as irresponsible – “move fast and break things”- having not foreseen or paused to consider all those issues themselves. But, when we listen to understand what is true for our business partners, or our clients in the case of external counsel, and they us, we can arrive at a much more open, empathetic and curious place. One where creative problem-solving and collaboration can thrive.
Of course, this is helpful in our personal lives too. When we maintain awareness of our tendency to judge, we are primed to check ourselves when that knee-jerk reaction kicks in. Then, we can open ourselves up to the possibility that there is more common ground than we may have otherwise thought. And common ground is one thing we need more of in our world right now.
I encourage all of us to practice staying in the place of openness, empathy, humility and curiosity. And, spend the time to ask yourself – what gets in the way?