Judgemental Communication

By Hilary Moses, Clinical Director

group3If judgmental communication was a person, its ears were definitely ringing this past week.  Many of the young people I work with tend toward black and white thinking, all or nothing mindsets–and the grey area is a place toward which we try to guide.  I often hear students welcome new peers into their groups through stating the values they’re each expected to follow, one being “the Ohana is a non-judgemental place.”  I hear this and I get the chills, though at the same time I start to cringe.  I believe in the intention; the idea that everyone is here so they can stop wearing masks and in order to do that, you have to feel safe, not judged.  However, each of these young people is also a thinking, feeling human who has every right to their opinions.  As long as we’re alive, I hope we continue to each have our own view, our own judgments of the world around us. We live in a world where judgments exist and they are sometimes at odds with our values.  I believe it’s imperative that, while establishing a base of safety, we learn to face possible judgment and live through it gracefully.

As I work with students in the garden, I try to help them see that the role that judgment plays in their lives is up to them, and there can be a healthy balance.  A major part of our work with young people is teaching how to receive and deliver thoughts that convey judgment in ways that illustrate grace and compassion.  Rather than trying to create a utopia in which everyone is all loving, we are aiming for something more sustainable and obtainable through cultivating empathy and thoughtful expression.  Similarly, in the individual and group work that I facilitate, I encourage students away from the skill of “not caring what people think of you.”  All too often we use this as a way to help folks who have been hurt, to slip away from comments as though there was a magical oil slick on their skin.  Rather, I find it important to teach students to use people around them as a mirror and notice how others feel or think about them.  This helps them gather evidence to make sure they’re working toward living up to the standards that matter to each of them as individuals.

All of the above said, judgmental communication can get way out of hand and cause serious damage to ourselves and others.  While talking with the parents of one of my students recently, the mother addressed how learning to communicate non-judgmentally is part of her focus in her personal growth work.  (By the way, one of the greatest contributing factors of long term success following therapeutic interventions is the personal growth and commitment from the parents.)  She and I paused for a moment to make a comparison in order to address the impact of judgmental communication.  I asked what it would feel like to spend an entire day thinking and talking in “shoulds”…“I should have done such and such.” or “You should do something different.” or “I really shouldn’t have done that.”

We then asked what the day would feel like if we replaced all of those “shoulds” with something else–something less judgmental.  For example,  “It is important to me to do such and such.” or “You could do it differently.” or “I really want to do it differently next time.”  By replacing the “shoulds”,  an individual has the opportunity to feel more empowerment and choice, rather than the feeling of being a victim or of wallowing in “shoulds.”  This is a simple change that could create such an impact if we made the commitment to it.

It’s important to find ways to describe rather than evaluate in working to an end.  For example, “this room is a pigsty; it’s the messiest thing I have ever seen,” could quickly become, “There are clothes all over the floor that need to get picked up.”  While your child,( or your sibling or your spouse) might still not like cleaning up, at least they don’t walk away having been laden with judgment and name calling.

As I come to the end of my Sunday and my head starts to think about the things that I wanted to get done during the weekend that seemed to split out of my focus, I still find it hard to not sigh deeply and feel “less than” as I look, for example, at the clean clothes on the couch that are folded but still sitting there after 3 days.  That said, I certainly do not want to head into my dreamworld thinking about the things I could have done today that I did not do, but rather I want to sigh soothingly and know that I have lived up to my values today and am proud of who I am, imperfections and laziness and all.  By the way, boss, I know I am handing this in past its due date.  Judgments are welcome…I can take it!