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Making judgements or being judgemental – why the difference matters

Jun 26, 2023

Speak as you find

It’s funny how we can build up a profile of someone in our head before we’ve even met them. Maybe someone is going to introduce you to a new friend of theirs or maybe a new partner and they’ve been talking about them quite a bit so you feel you’ve got a pretty good idea of what they’re like; or it could be a job interview scenario and you’ve made assumptions based on the person’s CV and by looking them up on LinkedIn, and maybe their other socials.

We might make assumptions based on a person’s name, age, where they live, perhaps their education and their job role and work history. Yet what can these facts actually tell us about that person or about their life experiences? Not much if we’re honest. We make assumptions based on our own reference points we’ve experienced through our life, but this is not based on any other inherent intuition or knowledge that we may think we possess.

I remember a friend of mine telling me about a situation that happened at her work. She is an accountant and worked for a small firm. Her boss had wild and whacky ideas sometimes about how to take the business forward and she had the tough job of trying to rein him in and failing that, somehow making the figures work. On this particular occasion, he asked her to sit in on a meeting with a prospective business partner, as he valued her opinion. She explained to me that she had been given a bit of background about the guy and had made various assumptions based on the scant knowledge she had been given– plus, the fact that he was a business associate of her boss, she feared his business acumen might also be questionable. My friend was honest in saying that she had virtually made up her mind that this guy would be no good for the business if he had anything to do with her boss, and he’d have to be pretty good in order to change that view. The poor man didn’t stand a chance.

However, the man in question arrived early for the meeting, dressed to impress and had a warm, open smile. He spoke with a quiet confidence as well as listened and he asked informed, intelligent questions. My friend said she couldn’t believe the assumptions she had made and that his demeanour and performance challenged all of these. She admitted that perhaps she had been judgemental, rather than made a judgement, which she couldn’t do until she met the person. With her recommendation, talks began as to how the two businesses could merge or at least work together for mutual gain- my friend hoped this new business partner could only make things better!

“I don't like that man. I must get to know him better.” Abraham Lincoln

Ask yourself how many times you make a supposition about an individual or a situation before you have the full facts. Maybe it is our own prejudices that prevent us seeing the whole picture or maybe we’re just too busy to take the time to listen and to have an open mind.

An advert for The Guardian newspaper from 1986 is a memorable example of how you should challenge your assumptions and look at the whole picture, so that you can formulate a rounded opinion on something or someone. A friend and I were talking about this advert and she said she had a great example of how assumptions are easily made about a person based on what they look like. She was once travelling by train from the ‘burbs into London. She needed to make a connection and was conscious that somehow, in a short space of time, she had to get from one platform to another with a baby and buggy and this involved crossing over a bridge and unfortunately, the station in question did not have any lifts. She wondered if perhaps one of her fellow passengers might also be making the same trip so gazed around and had a guess at who might help her. The smartly dressed businessman might not want to ruffle his suit but he looked like he might be chivalrous and oblige; maybe the middle-aged woman across the aisle– she probably had older children now but could identify with the days when she would struggle with a buggy. My friend thought it unlikely that the shaven-headed tattooed bomber jacket wearing guy opposite, who was plugged into his music would help; she surmised that he was aloof, unfriendly and not someone likely to offer help.

At the station she needed to make the connection, she disembarked the train and braced herself to carry the baby and buggy, should no one step forward offering their assistance. She looked hopefully at her fellow travellers as they rushed past and this included the businessman who looked very rushed, the middle-aged woman who seemed to avert her gaze and then, to her surprise, it was the guy opposite who approached her and said: ‘Are you alright? Do you need a hand over the bridge?’ My friend was flabbergasted (a word not used enough in my opinion) nay embarrassed, that she had made such a poor ill-informed judgement about this man. A brief conversation ensued as he helped her to the other platform, and he then left the station. A lesson for us all…

Step Inside My World
We each have our own set of beliefs and values, as well as unique life experiences which can affect our views and opinions however, to gain a balanced view, it’s crucial to not let these influence your perception. Leave your assumptions at the door because as ancient scholars and Oscar Wilde said:

‘When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me!'

It’s important to challenge the inherent beliefs that you might unwittingly hold that are deep in your subconscious. We are not born with these judgements, opinions or expectations about people or situations – it is learnt. Maybe it’s via our parents, teachers, carers, peers, relatives, the media, colleagues, society and so forth. As we live 95% of our lives reactively, and 95% of our thinking sits in our subconscious, for the most part, we are sleepwalking through life. How often do we stop to think consciously about what our values, beliefs and attitudes are?

It's vital that we drag any unconscious bias that we might possess, up to conscious gaze. You may have some inherent prejudices that you don’t even realise you hold, which in turn influences the assumptions you might make. It’s about educating ourselves and there is a multitude of ways to do this. It’s so important that from a young age, children understand it’s vital to be consciously aware of how their values, beliefs and opinions are formed, to challenge what they see and hear and to make a positive difference where they can. We can each make a difference when we attempt to understand other people’s experiences by attempting to look from their perspective – through their unique prism; because until then, we are blindly walking this earth seeing it through our own prism, our Mental Map– we see the world as we see it, not as it is.

As Alan Alda said:

“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.”

And we’ll pass our own judgemental comments and opinions on to others sometimes, as if they are fact.

A new person starts at work – Lucille in Accounts. Someone tells you something they’ve heard about Lucille, through someone else who used to work with her. Apparently, she lives in a big fancy house and her husband earns ridiculous amounts of money, but it may be curtains for his company so that’s why she’s had to get a job, not that she wants to because she thinks it’s all a bit beneath her.

Maybe before you even meet Lucille, you’ve already started to form an opinion of her. Perhaps you approach with caution thinking she might be a bit stuck up, not keen to talk to others if she doesn’t really want to be there, that maybe she won’t be that good at the job if she hasn’t had to work for a while.

But what factually do you know about Lucille? I would say not much. But you certainly know more about the person who has ‘kindly’ passed on this ‘information’ – that they’re a gossip, maybe jealous and that they judge people. Negative criticism is a dishonest way of praising yourself so it’s important to be watchful of what we say about others because we’re actually saying more about ourselves.

Assumptions, opinions, beliefs, being judgemental – they can all be dangerous because they cloud our perspective. Yes, in life, sometimes it is important to make judgements but that is very different to being judgemental We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are, through our own lens. And if we don’t drag all that to conscious gaze, we are in danger of being narrow-minded, bigoted and discriminatory – and the sad thing is, too many people don’t even realise it.

I believe the antidote to being judgemental and to make assumptions, is to be curious. Get to know more about someone and the situation, ask questions flagging up your ignorance but that you are keen to learn more, to educate yourself. I think curiosity can get us a long way in life to making better connections and advancing what we know.

Check out your own Mental Map and whether your values, beliefs and individual paradigms need updating. It's about thinking more consciously - something we could all do more of.


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