Choosing Between Judgment and Change

We want to change the things that bother us the most. We don’t need to look too far to find people and situations we feel are overdue for an overhaul, such as the myopic turf wars that limit our opportunities to collaborate, chauvinistic leadership styles that don’t honor the value in diversity, or the self-centered leader who puts his own welfare above that of the people he is supposed to serve. These are all things that legitimately make us angry and upset. We want to see them changed.

Here’s the thing. You may first need to change yourself before you are able to truly create lasting change in the people and situations that bother you most. That’s because you cannot change what you are judging.

Think about it. How do you feel when someone judges you? Are you willing to bend in that person’s direction and change your behavior to satisfy that person’s desire for you to be different? I doubt it. It’s more likely you will judge the person in return for judging you. You will fire up your defense mechanisms of choice and the cycle of judgment begins. Once the cycle gets started, it can be very difficult to stop.

Here’s how the cycle works. Judgment springs from fear. We fear the things that we don’t understand, don’t know how to change and are concerned can threaten us in some way. When we judge something we are afraid of it allows us to feel separate from whatever it is. Because judgment springs from fear, we respond to our judgments in the same ways we respond to fear – fight or flight. When we respond with fight we attack the other person or situation, directly or indirectly, often in hurtful ways that enable us to feel safely superior. If we choose to flee what we are judging, we give ourselves permission to dismiss the person or situation as hopeless and walk away. In either case, we have forfeited any chance of playing a meaningful part in creating change.

Meaningful change is only possible when we are willing to recognize and honor the humanity of the other person, and with that, the potential for change. Being able to see this requires us to set aside our judgments for a moment and look at the world through a different set of eyes. When you look through a compassionate lens, here is what you will see:

1. For the most part, everyone’s worldview makes perfect sense to them. People choose to behave in ways they feel will enable them to feel safe and accomplish whatever is important to them, even if it looks totally crazy to you.

2. The vast majority of the behaviors we judge in others are rooted in other person’s fears and insecurities. Turf wars exist because leaders don’t understand how to collaborate with each other; it feels risky and uncertain. Better to battle it out and feel safe than risk feeling vulnerable is the deep-seated rationale behind these ancient patterns of behavior. People fear being taken advantage of so they attack others they perceive to have the power to do this. Look closely at the dynamics of any situation you find frustrating and you will likely see this pattern playing out.

3. The worst thing you can do to a frightened person is scare the person even more. But that is exactly what we do when we judge people. We feel offended and frightened when we perceive that we are being judged. We respond by attacking the source of the judgment one way or another. This keeps the cycle of fear and judgment rolling.

The only way to stop this cycle is to opt out of it and create a new one. Someone has to choose to do things differently. Only when you recognize the frightened person behind the fierce façade can you invite true, significant and lasting change.

People need to be open to new possibilities in order to embrace change. People who feel they need to defend themselves don’t open to change. It’s one or the other. We have to be willing to let go of our judgment and look beyond the fear-based behaviors to see the essence of the person behind the defenses.

Letting go of judgment in order to embrace change requires personal awareness and courage. I suggest starting slowly. Begin with someone whose potential you can already see glimmers of shining below the surface of fear-based behaviors. It may be someone who is trying hard to do the right thing, but turns defensive when he perceives his efforts aren’t appreciated. Or the person with bright ideas who tends to argue with others because he’s afraid of losing, rather then engaging others in meaningful dialogue.

Practice letting go of your judgment of defensive behaviors and looking below at the good intentions. This may be a challenge if you are more accustomed to looking at people as being problems rather than having potential. With practice you can do this. After all, isn’t that how you would like people to look at you?

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