How to Be Non-Judgmental
It’s great to have a sense of what is right and wrong, to strive to be a better person and to be a good influence in the world. And it may sometimes be necessary to act assertively or to speak up for what is right especially when making your personal boundaries clear to others.
But there is also a danger of getting carried away with judgements, of forcefully imposing your particular standards on other people or of resorting to unnecessary levels of blame or condemnation that only get in the way of progress and understanding. Here are 15 ways to be less judgmental.
1. Embrace other people’s freedom
Everyone has a right to decide what’s good for them and the freedom to make mistakes. It’s not usually worth playing the role of a preacher, teacher, judge, critic, parent or behavioural monitor in anyone’s life. Freedom lets everyone focus on their own lives, choices, responsibilities and continual learning.
It is usually more reasonable to “let people find their own way” than to assume that you have a right to decide how they should think or to play a controlling and overbearing role in their lives. You can’t exercise people’s freedom on their behalf so it’s often wiser to allow them to make their own choices.
“It takes all sorts to make a world”
A good way to avoid being overbearing is to embrace the role of a “peaceful observer” rather than trying to have a say in anyone’s behaviour. Rather than concerning yourself too much with their actions it may be better to just sit back, watch the show and “err on the side of caution” and tolerance.
You can embrace your role as an observer by seeing life as a movie full of interesting characters. Every character’s job is to be exactly the way they already are. You get to decide what your character is like but without trying to change any of the other characters in the story.
2. Don’t “should” all over other people
You can’t always assume that people have to do whatever you believe is right. For that reason it’s best to view most issues of principle, morality or conscience as private matters. How other people behave is usually “none of your business” or “not my circus, not my monkeys” as some Polish people say.
Your opinion about how most people “should” behave most of the time belongs to an ideal world. In the real world, very little has to be as it would in your ideal one. There is only one person whose behaviour you can ultimately control and that is why it’s generally better to follow Ghandi’s advice:
“Be the change that you want to see in the world”
Even if what someone is doing has an effect on you, how they exercise their own freedom is still up to them to a large extent. If you want to learn how to be non-judgemental then avoid taking moral responsibility for how anyone else behaves. You are only ethically responsible for your own actions.
That doesn’t mean you can never express a viewpoint about how other people might behave but it is not always worth doing and be careful about how forcefully you do so. When you present it in the form of “should” then this will sound like “must” and not everyone will be charmed or persuaded.
3. Observe your judgments without acting on them
It’s natural to have thoughts and emotions about any situation but not always necessary to express them outwardly. You can observe yourself carefully rather than immediately acting on your internal reaction as if it’s a necessary prompt. A knee-jerk reaction is not usually the wisest one.
When you no longer feel compelled to immediately react on the basis of your internal state you’re saving yourself a lot of potential drama. Letting go of “reactivity” makes you more non-conflictual since it tends to avoid expressing yourself in a way that others may find hard to deal with.
“Reactions are like a revolver. Avoid being trigger-happy”
You can often learn a lot by doing nothing and simply observing your thoughts and feelings. Deferring judgment allows you to avoid getting carried away by how things seem and giving yourself enough time to reflect on everything in a calm, considered, balanced and open-minded way.
It may also be worth examining the roots of any judgments. For example, children raised by a controlling parent often develop a harsh “inner critic” that will sometimes express itself against others in the form of an equally harsh “outer critic”. Maybe you and everyone else deserve a break.
4. Practise letting go of expectations
Expectations are like an invisible, unsigned contract that we imagine other people have to follow. It can be quite unreasonable to demand that other people have to play by our own unwritten rules, no matter how fair and reasonable those rules may be to us or how willing we are to follow them.
“The only way to free yourself from others is to free them from you”
Expectations will often create unnecessary judgments. For example, if I need space then someone who is being friendly might seem slightly “irritating” or “pushy”. But if I feel lonely and want company then someone who is simply minding their own business might seem really “cold” or “unfriendly”.
5. Avoid resorting to personal criticism
The fact that judging is so easy and can give us a feeling of power over others makes it tempting to resort to the use of criticism. For example, if we are upset with someone we might “retaliate” by using a label that sounds harsh, accusatory or makes some feel as if they are “wrong” or “bad”.
“Criticism tends to provoke people”
The intention may simply be to let them know that they have done something that is not good for us. But saying it in a critical way often makes people feel as if they are being attacked and need to defend themselves. And sometimes, what we are saying is “You’re bad because you don’t do what I want”.
6. Develop a sense of balance and proportion
When you put anyone’s misbehaviour under a microscope it will always seem much worse, more significant and more important than it really is. The principle may be valid but that can easily disguise the fact that the extent of the problem is too small to deserve so much attention.
Unless you are dealing with serious criminal behaviour that massively harms other people then it may be worth remembering that there are probably “bigger fish to fry”. It’s safer to “err on the side of freedom” when it comes to making an issue out of anything that isn’t relatively huge in scale or scope.
“Let’s not get carried away here”
The other problem with focusing only on what is wrong is that it narrows the focus of attention in a way that causes people to overlook other important aspects of the story. When the first impulse is to shout “That’s awful!” and “You’re awful!” then it’s very easy to overlook all kinds of considerations.
7. Seek continual understanding rather than conclusions
It’s premature to judge someone when you don’t know all the facts about why they behave the way they do and what’s really going on in their brain. But the truth is that you can never know all the facts. And so it’s often wiser to shrug your shoulders and accept the limits of your own understanding.
When you keep sincerely trying to understand people rather than reach a conclusion, you’re more likely to arrive at the position of harmony and inner peace. You may not agree with everything they say and do but deferring judgement acknowledges that you can never see the whole picture.
“What do I really know anyway?”
We often learn more about people by listening to them rather than judging them. When that opportunity arises, the best ways to do that are to relax, give them your attention, empathise and embrace a gentle curiosity. Instead of concluding “That’s wrong” try to think “That’s understandable”.
8. Avoid judging by association
Sometimes we behave rather like the judges of TV talent shows, dismissing people as soon as they “fail” to live up to our harsh standards. Judging by broad impressions, appearances and associations often leads to unnecessary snap judgements based on prejudicial thinking or premature conclusions.
To some extent it’s natural to put people and experiences into categories that help us “make sense” of how to deal with them. But it leads to a way of thinking that is based on loose associations rather than what is strictly fair. When you encounter anything that seems familiar you might say:
“That might not be what it reminds me of”
A good example is meeting someone whose look, style or accent reminds you of people you liked or disliked in the past. The truth is they could still be very different from what you might expect. But before you really know anything, your mind may already start looking to “prove” what they are like.
Another example is imagining that someone’s behaviour “represents” something bad. Sometimes, it’s more accurate to say that it “loosely reminds” you of something you have concerns about. It can be judgmental to strictly impose associations on reality that are sweeping, ideological or over-defensive.
9. Understand the role of ignorance in human behaviour
It’s easy to underestimate the huge role that cluelessness plays in people’s way of thinking and seeing both themselves and others. Even if “they know what they are doing” there’s always so much more that they don’t know and usually can’t be made aware of. That’s why Christians say:
“Forgive them for they know not what they do”
If most people could see themselves they’d be quite embarrassed. Without realising it, people are driven by irrationality, ignorance, conformity, submissiveness, neediness, fear and suffering. Many are also limited in empathy, social skills or self-awareness. You can’t really blame them for that.
10. Understand some misbehaviour in terms of unmet needs
It often makes sense to look beneath the surface of a person’s difficult behaviour and to understand what is really going on in terms of their underlying needs. This is a less critical and less judgmental way of viewing the person that helps make sense of why they are behaving like that.
For example, a person may seem aggressive when they are afraid that you could be “against” them and therefore indirectly expressing an unmet need for safety or inclusion. It may then be possible to dissolve their surface-level hostility by directly addressing their need through kindness or reassurance.
“Why is this person behaving like that? What do they really need?”
People’s behaviour can also be the result of deeper and sometimes life-long unmet needs. For example, someone who talks too much or brags about achievements may have developed a severe attention deficit from struggling to live on their own or from earlier experiences of childhood neglect.
Recognising their underlying needs does not mean you have to do whatever they want since that may be unreasonable in some cases. But it frees you from having to judge, blame or overreact by helping you to understand the genuine human struggle from which their surface-level behaviour stems.
11. Agree to disagree when you can’t agree
It’s not always necessary to adopt or push for some strong personal view “about” what other people believe. Even when you find yourself disagreeing then you can often say “Could be” rather than “I don’t know about that”. This is another way of keeping an open mind about your own views.
That doesn’t mean you will never find yourself openly disagreeing with anyone. But even when that happens, you can still embrace a spirit of “joyful disagreement” or “loving disagreement”, acknowledging differences of opinion, values or character without seeing anyone as a hostile “enemy”.
“Our differences don’t have to divide us”
Empathy and even flattery can go a long way to ensuring that a disagreement or discussion remains positive and peaceful. A situation is unlikely to escalate if you can make it very clear that you understand and relate to a person’s viewpoint and also find something positive to say about them.
12. View people’s inhumanity as a reflection of your own
Human beings can sometimes behave in a way that is highly inconsiderate and the temptation to judge them for that is entirely understandable. But many of us need to go through at least one brutal experience of inhumanity before we can realise the true value that humanity offers the world.
To be on the receiving end of behaviour that is lacking in empathy can help you to sincerely consider, understand and regret those times in your own life when you also acted as if other human beings did not exist, were not as important as you or did not have real feelings.
“We all have our moments”
Empathy is a skill that not everyone can be aware of or master. But the most empathic human beings are those who are able to empathise with other people’s inability to empathise with them by seeing that lack of empathy as something that reminds them of their own ignorance in the past.
When you see other people’s failure to empathise as a reflection of your own mistakes then forgiving them becomes a way of practising what it takes to forgive yourself. Understanding and allowing people to behave without empathy is a test of true empathy, compassion and non-judgment of yourself.
13. Observe the role of hypocrisy in judgments
We are often able to find a good reason, excuse or explanation for our own mistakes even while harshly condemning, judging or being outraged by other people’s mistakes. We tend to conveniently seek the minimum penalty for ourselves even while extracting the maximum punishment for others.
When other people do anything wrong we are more likely to describe it in grand terms, to treat it as a “sign” of some general, overall character flaw and to insist that they knew exactly what they were doing. When we do something wrong we often take a kinder view of the act and intentions involved.
“Treat others as you wish to be treated”
For example, if we ever lie then we might say “I was afraid to tell you the truth”, “I told a white lie” or “I was confused”. But when someone else lies then we are more likely to hold them guilty of a terrible deception and to conclude that they are a generally nasty, remorseless liar who can never be trusted.
Another common example is that we might say “I would never do that!” when someone else makes a mistake, forgetting that many people would also “never do” some of the things we do. Without excusing what is wrong, we can still limit the extent, severity and hypocrisy of our own judgments.
14. Give “radical empathy” a chance
It’s worth asking if it is possible to imagine what it is truly like to be a particular person with whom you disagree. They may be entirely wrong but how might things genuinely appear to them, given their clueless assumptions, rigid habits, lack of self-awareness, unresolved fears or frustrated needs?
In a strange way, it’s possible to empathise even with what is ignorant, messed up, twisted or itself lacking in empathy. Rather than trying to change people’s limitations, start to imagine what “reality” might look like for someone whose perspective is actually shaped by such limitations.
A lot of difficult circumstances can be accepted by looking at everything from the viewpoints of others in a spirit of compassionate interpretation. This can be huge challenge in situations of disagreement or in cases where they themselves have little or no empathy but it is still possible to say:
“If I were in your shoes, I might well see things in exactly the same way as you do”
It may seem impossible to relate to another person’s wrongdoing. But it’s also worth considering how your own personality might have turned out if your entire perspective had been shaped by different genes and formative life influences. You might have actually become a different person.
Without all the benefit of your current knowledge, awareness, experience and natural predispositions, there is no chance you would be the same. And that’s why psychologists are often able to causally explain people’s behaviour in terms of what is essentially a series of biographical accidents.
Life can do truly bizarre things to a person’s perspective without them even realising its influence. The more you know about a person’s life story, the more you truly understand how they came to think and feel the way they do (including any ignorance on their part) and the harder it is to judge them.
15. Reduce your sense of separation from others
Many people focus on what they believe makes them different to or even “superior” to others. It is often only through suffering that they are humbled into focusing on their common ground with other human beings, for example by realising how much undeserved suffering others are going through.
None of us are quite as special as we sometimes pretend to be. Despite anyone’s differences, their needs, desires, feelings, pain, hopes and dreams are just as real and important to them as your own experiences are to you. In that sense, everyone might even be seen as “another version of you”.
“We are all members of one extended human family”
The message coming out of social media, advertising and culture tells a different story by routinely “normalising” competition, greed, blame, elitism, rigid identification and otherness. But don’t let that fool you into failing to see what many people will deny until they need help. We are all in this together.
Life gets easier when you give up the unnecessary and exhausting responsibility of judging other people. This allows you to focus on what you can learn about yourself and others. It also enhances your compassion by humbly acknowledging the limits of your knowledge. As Wendy Mass said:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”
Becoming an observer of life and of your own reactions allows you to increasingly empathise with and understand rather than judge other people. It can help you to develop a sense of balance, a way of understanding misunderstandings and a way of accepting those with whom you disagree.