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On Making Judgments and Being Judgmental

Eight dynamics to consider in making constructive judgments.

The other day, my father asked me the difference between making judgments and being a judgmental person. Given how I sometimes experience my father, it was a potentially loaded question. Although he has many wonderful qualities and we are close, it certainly is the case that I (and several others) occasionally experience him as being overly judgmental.

In asking me the question, it was clear that he wanted to make the point that everyone makes judgments all the time. And, if that is the case, why are only certain people accused of being judgmental? Or, to put it slightly differently, is it fair to say that I am being judgmental if I accuse my father of being judgmental?

Carl Rogers had much to say about problems associated with being judgmental. The ideal of a nonjudgmental attitude was central to his client-centered humanistic approach to psychotherapy. (See Mayer's blogs on this). Rogers argued that people had a positive growth force that would be stunted from reaching its potential in the context of judgmental others. Because of this, Rogers maintained that successful therapy required the therapist to possess a nonjudgmental, positive regard for clients, which he described as the following:

...experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client's experience as being a part of that client... It means that there are no conditions of acceptance, no feeling of "I like you only if you are thus and so." It means a "prizing" of the person, as Dewey has used that term. It is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude -- "You are bad in these ways, good in those."

With this frame in mind, let’s say your 15-year-old client (or daughter) has just let you know that last night at a party, she lost her virginity via having casual, unprotected sex with a senior she just met. Although I would clearly have a more charged reaction if it were my daughter, even if I were working with a client, I certainly would have concerns that reflected my values and opinions about the wisdom of this act.

This brings us back to my father’s basic point, which is that we are constantly viewing others’ actions through evaluative lenses. And shouldn’t we be doing so? I certainly judge the actions of my kids, students, wife, etc. It would be impossible not to.

Even in the therapy room, I will be nodding and encouraging of my clients when they voice certain things I see as adaptive (e.g., “It was pretty impressive that you did that," “That took a lot of courage to say,” “I think you are getting better with managing that”), and question other acts that I see as maladaptive (e.g., “I wonder if that was the best approach,” “It seems your impulsivity might have got the best of you," “Do you think a part of you might regret that later?”).

Indeed, most would argue that even the great Carl Rogers was constantly making statements that reflected his judgments about the way people ought to be (see here for an interesting clip involving Rogers). So that brings us back to the original question: What is the difference between making judgments and being judgmental?

If you look up the word judgmental in the dictionary, there are generally two meanings, which help us sort out the issues. One has to do with making judgments; so, yes, at a basic semantic level, making judgments is being judgmental.

The other meaning of judgmental has to do with being overly critical in an unhelpful way, and it is this separate meaning that allows us to get to the heart of the issue. It is when we make judgments in ways that have harmful or negative consequences that we are being judgmental in ways that are best to avoid. How do we know how to make constructive as opposed to problematic judgments? This is a very complicated question, but below are eight key dynamics that are useful to keep in mind when judging others.

1. The empathy dynamic. When evaluating someone else’s actions or personality, it is crucial that you understand where they are coming from; their perspective, history, and the experiences that went into the current situation. In the above example of the 15-year-old, at some point, it would be crucial to be very clear about her narrative and understand what she was thinking and feeling when she made that decision.

2. The values-frame dynamic. Related to the empathy dynamic, this dynamic refers to whose values are being used to frame the evaluation and why. Are those value-frames absolute, or idiosyncratic and relative? For example, if you claim that it is wrong to be a homosexual, what value-frame are you enacting? What if that person does not get their values from the same place?

3. The power dynamic. Obviously, the dynamics are very different if your judgments potentially carry much influence, as opposed to if they do not. So, it is crucial to keep in mind what is the direct and potential impact of your judgment.

4. The person vs. situation dynamic. Research shows that when judging others we tend to over-attribute acts to people’s personalities rather than to the variables in the specific situation. For example, if someone cuts in line, we will tend to see that person as selfish and insensitive. Of course, if we cut in line, we will have the situational need very clear in our heads (“I am in a hurry and need to do it just this once!”).

5. The person vs. the act dynamic. Even at his most nonjudgmental, Rogers certainly would agree that not all behaviors are created equal. To maintain a nonjudgmental attitude toward an individual’s essence, many therapists will separate problematic acts from the person. In short, judge the sin, not the sinner.

6. The open vs. closed dynamic. Although we need to be cautious about being gullible, it is crucial that if new data emerge that challenges our initial opinions we remain open to changing our evaluations.

7. The shallow vs. expert knowledge dynamic. Ideally, our commitments to our judgments ought to be based on the depth of our knowledge. Unfortunately, people often form strong judgments basic on snapshots and stereotyped frames. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon that the more you know the less certain you become.

8. The optimistic vs. pessimistic dynamic. Although overly optimistic judgments about others can surely create potential problems, it is probably also the case that pessimistic judgments about others are more likely to be damaging or injurious.

So, to answer my father’s question, someone is being judgmental when their judgments are power-driven, unempathetic, based on their own idiosyncratic values or tastes, overly based on other people’s character, and are closed, shallow, and pessimistic, and ultimately have the consequence of making the other person feel problematically diminished. Given these reflections, perhaps I will defer to him to decide if he has ever made judgments in a problematic way.

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