Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


It’s Not “Don’t Judge” But “Don’t Play Judge”

If you want to be heard, don’t pull fake rank.

Key points

  • "Don't judge" is a popular but hypocritical way to get people to tone down their criticism.
  • "Don't judge" should mean "don't play judge," in other words, don't pull fake rank.
  • To overcome the hypocrisy of the command, use subjective qualifiers to show that you know you're not the supreme judge either.
  • People will be more receptive to your opinions, even your strong opinions, if they hear you admitting that it's just your opinion.

The popular rejoinder “don’t Judge!” has had surprising staying power for such a hypocritical command. People have been saying it for decades now.

It’s understandable. In today’s cultural chaos, we’d seek ways to say “don’t go there” and this one works. “Don’t judge” tends to make people tone it down even though it’s one of the judgy-est pronouncements one can make: “I hereby prohibit you from judging me, and in so doing, I declare all judgment impermissible in my courtroom.” That’s hypocrisy on stilts.

What “don’t judge” could and should mean is don’t PLAY judge.

The technical term for playing judge is frame dominance—dominating a debate or contest by acting like the authority entitled to decide what’s fair and foul and, above all, who wins (hint: the frame dominator). Frame dominance is pretending to be the authority presiding over a case in which one is merely an advocate. It’s posing as the ump when you're just a competitor.

In other words, it’s an equal pulling fake rank.

Playing judge comes naturally to most of us. Each of us feels like the judge. Our intuitions and interpretations feel so convincing to ourselves that we simply assume we’re objective authorities. Besides, we can tell that other people are subjective because sometimes they disagree with us. It’s as if our presumed objectivity exposes their biases and their biases prove our objectivity.

Playing judge is also advantageous. We’re most confident when we’re convinced we see things clearly, and confidence often wins debates.

Simply put, frame dominance works. It shouldn’t, but it does. We shouldn’t let people get away with playing judge, but we often do. To prevent or deescalate conflicts or just out of exhaustion, we often let the most confident party win. A judge gets to decide so a person merely playing judge often ends up with decisive power.

Believe it or not, whole democracies have been crushed by corrupt cults that, despite all of their obvious corruption, continue to play judge, acting like they’re the supreme authorities on what’s right and righteous. Despots always play pope long after they’ve proven that they don’t have a moral leg to stand on. And to a large extent, people surrender to their trumped up absolutism.

If I were to adjudicate on this topic, I’d say don’t play judge and don’t let yourself be played by people playing judge. Neither judge-player nor judge-played be.

And while I’m speaking from the high bench of my merely subjective opinion, please stop saying “Don’t judge” and start saying “don’t play judge.”

If you were inclined to take my subjective advice (strictly optional), how would you implement such a policy? Let’s start with "don’t play judge."

When saying controversial things, use subjective qualifiers like “I think…” or “My guess is that…” Show that you know you’re not the judge. Fight the temptation to pull rank you don’t have.

Even if you do have rank. Even if you’re the actual, official boss and have the final say, don’t talk like you’re God making pronouncements from on high. Don’t say “This won’t work,” say “I don’t bet this will work.” Don’t say “This is bad,” say “I think it’s bad.” Your subjective opinion will rule the day anyway, and your subordinates will be more receptive if you’re not indulging in playing supreme judge but merely the boss of the project at hand.

Subjective qualifiers are especially important in processing conversations and debates. You are entitled to psychologize other people, but not as though you’re God. Don’t say “you’re being defensive.” Say “I think you’re being defensive.” Don’t say “You’re jealous.” Say “I bet you’re jealous.”

Subjective qualifiers are even more important when describing our own feelings and motives, about which, contrary to popular opinion, we are not objective authorities. People say “don’t tell me how I feel. I know how I feel!” but we know that can’t always be true. Obviously, there are times we don’t know or don’t care to admit to what we’re feeling or what motivates us. So we need subjective qualifiers on self-declaration, too. Don’t say “I’m not mad.” Say “I could be wrong but I don’t bet I’m mad.”

To illustrate the importance of subjective qualifiers, let’s parse a common comment in a heated exchange. Someone might say “Look, I’m not attacking you,” as a gesture of friendly deescalation. It’s not. It’s as agitating as commanding someone to “calm down.” To say “I’m not attacking you” is to declare yourself on your own high authority, free of responsibility for the conflict and in the process, to imply that the problem is that the opponent is being defensive.

Instead, say and mean, “I could be wrong but I don’t think I’m attacking you.” A subjective qualifier won’t defuse all conflict but it will soften the authoritarian tone.

Created by author
Source: Created by author

Indeed, subjective qualifiers afford us more freedom to say what we really think. There’s an easily overlooked difference between a qualified and a subjectively qualified assertion. “Perhaps you’re wrong” is qualified. “I think you’re flat-out wrong” is subjectively qualified. The difference is subtle, but it makes a difference. Subjectively qualified assertions don’t have to be mealy mouthed. You can have high confidence in your interpretation while demonstrating that it is still just your subjective interpretation.

Receptivity goes way up when all parties own their subjectivity and no parties play judge. Not playing judge will lower your bulldozing horsepower but in the long run that’s a good thing because you aren’t the supreme judge, you’re a judge among judges, people making up their own minds.

Now, to be judge-played is to let someone frame-dominate you, letting them declare things as if they’re the objective authority and you’re a subjective and biased plaintiff pleading your case before them. Call people on their judge-playing. Make them admit that their perspective is as subjective and biased as yours.

How then to avoid letting others play judge? Simple. Stop saying “don’t judge” and instead say “don’t play judge.” Call people on their frame dominance while signaling that you’re subjective, too.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
More from Psychology Today