Judge Judiciously

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

The person who cuts you off in traffic is not (necessarily) an a**hole; nor is the person who voted for the other candidate (necessarily) stupid, evil, or out to destroy the country.  These are judgments we make, knowing nothing else about people, driven too often by a toxic cocktail of negative emotion and prejudice.  I wrote a few days ago about resisting early closure and asking more and better questions, in order to come to better conclusions—to make better judgments.

What good does it do us to judge quickly?  It feels decisive and righteous, for one thing.  It can make our decisions easier and faster when we don’t stop and question our assumptions and biases, or examine the influence of our own emotional baggage.  We get to dwell in the comfortable, if somewhat distorted, status quo of our own worldview, perhaps oblivious to the unintended impact of all that we ignore and dismiss.  This works for a while, maybe.

But we’ve probably all experienced that humbling moment when we realize how a snap judgment led us seriously astray.  What did it cost us?  Perhaps we lost a great job opportunity, or damaged a relationship that we care about.  Did we ruin a negotiation?  Maybe we lost someone’s trust, which we may never fully earn back. 

I’m not saying we should never make judgments.  Decisions must be made, after all.  Hiring, firing, mergers and acquisitions, voting, marriage—all human relationships and collaborations require us to dance, sometimes in elaborate steps of give and take, call and response, and iterative, reciprocal disclosures and choices. I think drawing premature, oversimplified conclusions closes more doors than it opens, especially in our minds.

So when is judgment required and important?  What makes judgment ‘good’?  I think it’s when our core values are at stake and at play.  I witness someone lying because telling the truth is costly or painful.  I know that another person says they believe one thing, and yet their actions speak differently, for whatever reason(s).  Does a given decision before me align with my core values of honesty, integrity, fairness, inclusion, kindness, and generosity?  If not, I can judge the action, and not necessarily the person who makes it, as dishonest, lacking integrity, unfair, exclusionary, unkind, or selfish.  If I make a judgment, I should be willing to defend it with conviction.  In my mind that means employing both evidence and sound reason, not just escalating emotions—unless, of course, I am aware that my judgment comes from exactly the latter.

This is an all too human foible that we would all do well to recognize.  When we see someone judging suddenly and severely, we can ask, ‘What core value, belief, or identity do they feel being violated here?’  This type of judgment can rarely be reasoned away with evidence to its contrary.  Read The Culture Puzzle by Moussa, Newberry, and Urban, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein, and The Power of Us by Van Bavel and Packer, to see how our various strongly held identities trigger intense emotional hijack when we feel them to be threatened.  Under such conditions we slide into tribalist survival mode, aggressively attacking our perceived attacker, elephants loose, operating in fixed rationalization the whole way. 

If we can take a few deep breaths and withhold our own judgment for a moment, exercise some curiosity, empathy, and compassion, and not take their words and attitude personally (especially if they are judging and attacking us), perhaps we could see them as a fellow human, get a glimpse of what really matters to them, and appreciate why they’re so riled up. Maybe we could even learn something new. We can de-escalate. And once we do that, we can render wholly unnecessary our need to judge in return. How liberating.