Judging

Over the past few years, I've been learning to express my judgments in a way that I like better than my old way.

By judgment, I mean a statement that some person, event, or condition is good or bad, or morally right or wrong. For example, "John is lazy" is a judgment, a statement that John is bad in a particular way.

I've found that beneath every judgment lies a feeling, and beneath every feeling lies a need. Every judgment I make comes not from the person, event, or condition I'm judging, but ultimately from my needs, and from how I feel about my needs being either met or unmet. A "positive" judgment means that my needs are satisfied. A "negative" judgment means that my needs are unmet.

"John is lazy." What needs and feelings lie behind that statement? The need could be nearly any need. Maybe I'm needing some companionship, and I've asked John to go to a football game with me. When John says that he doesn't feel like going out today, my need for companionship isn't met. I feel lonely, and attribute my loneliness to John. I see John as the reason that I don't have the companionship I'm needing. I judge him to be lazy.

Judgments leave the most important information unsaid. "John is lazy" says nothing about my need for companionship or the loneliness I feel when my need isn't met. My loneliness comes not from John's actions, but from my need for companionship. If I had other people to be with, I wouldn't feel lonely in response to John not wanting to go to the game. And my need for companionship is about me. It has nothing to do with John.

Judgments deflect attention away from my responsibility. "John is lazy" seems to be a statement about John. Though I'm the one making the statement, the content of the statement says nothing about me. It says nothing about my needs or about my feeling about my needs being unsatisfied. My needs and feelings are my creations, and therefore entirely my responsibility. By talking only about John, I distract your attention, and more importantly my attention, away from my responsibility.

Judgments are ineffective ways to satisfy needs. I believe that every judgment is an attempt to satisfy the need that gave rise to the judgment. But judging makes it less likely that I will satisfy my need. By judging John as lazy deflects responsibility for my feelings from me to John, and gives away my power. It makes John responsible for meeting my need. And given that John is not meeting my need, I'm stuck with my loneliness.

I've learned a more effective way to meet my needs: Express my needs and feelings directly. I might tell John, "I'm feeling lonely because I'm needing some companionship." (I first learned of this phrasing from Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication . The earlier first edition of Nonviolent Communication was my favorite book of 2001. Thanks to my friend Bill Pardee for recommending it!)

I see two main advantages in expressing myself this way. First, by expressing my need clearly and directly, this gives me a chance to find other ways to meet my need. And it gives John a chance to offer ideas if he chooses. Maybe he will invite me to his house to play chess.

Second, directly expressing my needs and feelings draws my attention (and John's) to my responsibility. My need is my need. My feeling is my response to my need. If John chooses not to satisfy my need for companionship, I can seek other companions, or simply accept that I don't have the companionship I need. In any case, I am now owning my need, and owning my feelings.

I'm still working on this. I'm often tempted to say "That was a great movie" instead of "I loved that movie." Exploring the needs and feelings that give rise to my judgments is sometimes a lot of work. But I'm much happier with the results.

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