Friday, August 10, 2012

Are Judgments Wrong?

by Miki Kashtan

This piece was born out of my ongoing confusion about how to talk about the vision of living beyond right and wrong thinking. Two questions repeatedly arise, and I am not always satisfied with my responses to them. As different as they may seem, both, to me, are indicative of the same challenge. One question is some version of: “Are you saying that it’s OK to kill someone?” The other takes the form of: “Aren’t you saying that judgments are wrong?” My one word answer to both of them is simply “no.” So, what, then, am I saying?

Our Words Have Consequences

My rather arbitrary starting place in disentangling the many threads in this knot is to explore the significance of our choice of words. Saying that something is “wrong”, or “right”, or “beautiful”, for that matter, has consequences for the speaker as well as for the person hearing the words. This form of speaking assumes a standard of what these words mean that is external to the speaker and the listener. The speaker is not taking full responsibility for being the one making that judgment. The listener is subtly invited to agree with the speaker rather than to understand the speaker. The ensuing conversation, if one takes place, is less likely to be one of exploration and connection than one of making pronouncements and, in the case of disagreement, debate, possibly acrimony.

If, instead, the speaker speaks of their experience, what they say becomes incontrovertible and invites a different quality of relating. No one can argue with me about whether or not I liked a certain movie. Anyone could argue with me about whether or not this was a bad movie. Speaking of our own experience, our own inner frame of meaning, and taking responsibility for that being my frame instead of some truth that lives outside of me, has different effects.

For myself, based on years of learning, practicing, and teaching, I can say with definite clarity that I prefer the consequences of speaking without judgments to what happens when I use judgment words. The quality of connection and dialogue, and the capacity of people to work together to create something they can both live with, increase with the former. In part, this is because saying things from a personally owned perspective tends to be more vulnerable and therefore, again in my experience, invite a response that is also more vulnerable. In part, this is because when the speaker expresses things in that way, there tends to be more of an explanation of a “why” that the other side can then relate to.

My favorite example of this kind of shift is what happened when the Public Conversations Project brought together people from across the abortion debate. People were asked to speak of their values and life experiences that led them to have the positions they had, rather than about the positions themselves. The result, after a few years of continued conversations beyond that original event, was that six leaders of opposing movements co-authored an article in the Boston Globe in 2001 titled “Talking with the Enemy”. This is a moving account of how, in the face of some of the most entrenched differences in positions, these women came to love and respect each other. None of them changed their positions, and nonetheless they could engage with each other, even collaborate to prevent violence in abortion clinics.

Two Kinds of Judgments

Although I want to meet Rumi in his field “beyond thoughts of right-doing and wrong-doing”, I also know that we are constantly making judgments and evaluations, and I have no desire or interest in changing that fundamental human activity. I simply want to change the kind of judgment that I make. From the perspective I have on the world, in which human needs are at the center, I find it immensely helpful to recognize and aim for continually making judgment calls about what meets needs and what doesn’t, which path is more likely to contribute to well-being and which path is more likely to contribute to harm. These are judgments that are based within me, relying on my own values and understanding of the world, without reference to external authority, implicit or explicit. This is a form of judgment that is a constant act of discernment about life.

My own concern is about the kind of judgment that implicitly relies on an external authority. When I say “It is wrong to do so” rather than “I am disturbed about this act,” I am implying that the “wrongness” is external to my own evaluation, exists there, in some objective reality. In my view, this is precisely what creates the harm from judgments. Based on my own evaluation of human history and my own experience of working with people, I am confident that significantly more harm has been done by individuals and cultures who use that kind of judgment than those who only or mostly use judgments that are based on needs and values that are recognized as such. This statement I just made, in itself, is a form of value judgment. The value in question is my own deep care for life, from which emerges my desire to choose actions and forms of speech that I believe will serve life more fully. This, to me, is a far cry from saying that judgments are wrong, or even that there are two kinds of judgments, and one kind is wrong. I am evaluating based on consequences to what is dear to me.

“Positive” Judgments

No discussion of judgments would be complete for me without addressing the question of so-called positive judgments. If my concern is about harm, I often hear people ask, then why would I have an issue with judgments such as “good,” “wonderful,” “generous?” What harm could possibly be done by that? Doesn’t it contribute to well being to be told that we’ve done a good job, for example?
Is Praise Enjoyable?
I have three responses. First, on the most personal level. I am someone who has been praised -- about certain things -- my entire life (along with being criticized for many others). I still remember how unpleasant it felt to be set apart from others by being seen as “better”. It never felt supportive or nourishing. Since I started teaching NVC, I have become even more attuned to what I want that would be nourishing instead of being told “this was a great workshop.” I want to know in specificity what happened for the speaker that was meaningful for them. That is how I get learning value in hearing from them. I want the same when they are not happy with the workshop. I don’t experience connection or meaning through the judgment.

How Praise and Reward Affect Behavior
The second is extensive research that shows - sufficiently to my satisfaction - that praise and other rewards can be just as harmful as punishment. In fact, Alfie Kohn wrote a book called Punished by Rewards which examines the effects of rewards in schools, among other places. I know that rewards and positive judgments are not exactly the same, and yet I see similarities in terms of the unexpected effects. Dan Pink has a YouTube video that discusses the growing evidence that reward decreases performance in all but the most mundane of tasks. I simply want us to look deeply into these questions rather than assume that praise and rewards have an unqualified positive effect on people.
Training of the Mind
Fundamentally, I experience judgments as separating -- the person who judges from the ones being judged, even if it’s the same person; the speaker of judgment from the listener, especially if there is disagreement; and, often enough, groups of people from each other. At present, I am sensitive enough to judgments that I experience this separation even when they are “positive.”

Even if not, I know I want to release myself from the grip of the habit of judging. This habit is reinforced any time I judge, regardless of the content of the judgment. For any of us who want to free ourselves from judgments, I simply believe that we get there far faster if we work on the positive as well as the negative. Learning to take responsibility and full ownership of our experiences, feelings, evaluations of things, our needs, wishes, and actions -- this is a serious project that puts us on a different path from how the culture at large operates. Given the pervasiveness of this habit within and around us, I know I want every opportunity to practice a different way if I am to ever reach integration and spontaneity on the other path.

Choosing Judgments for Connection

When I say that I don’t hold judgments to be “wrong,” and that I want to base my choice of words on the consequences I anticipate from using them, I mean it very literally. Just as I was in the process of reflecting internally on the topic in preparation for writing this piece, a conversation took place with a friend, let’s call her Nancy, who was agitated because a friend of hers said to her that “evil” was not a useful concept. This happened when they were discussing the actions of police toward African Americans in Oakland.

I am profoundly distressed at the actions of police, in Oakland and elsewhere, I am fundamentally aligned with that same perspective. I experience the actions of police as tragic more than anything else, helping no one, harming many, and contributing to increasing loss of trust rippling through many communities. It would never occur to me to call these actions “evil” or even “wrong.”

Nonetheless, I happily managed to stay focused on understanding Nancy instead of getting involved in the content of the issue. Nancy brought the issue up because she wanted to know how to talk with her friend about the topic. I was, in fact, honored that she chose to talk with me knowing what my position is.

Instead of debating the question of evil, what we did instead is look at what was so important to Nancy about using this term. We identified a few elements of great significance. Partly, calling on an external reference was a way, for her, of trusting that the seriousness of an issue would be believed. Coming from a history of abuse in which Nancy’s experience was not believed, she wants people’s experience of harm to be fully recognized. Partly, it’s a sense of solidarity with the people being harmed. Naming what happens to them evil lets them know that they are not alone with the experience.

From this conversation I got to understand more fully why I might sometimes choose to use a word such as “evil” or any other judgment. This is no different than any other act of stepping into someone else’s shoes and worldview in order to create connection and understanding. It is my choice, and my choice alone to transcend the habit of making these kinds of judgments. I am obviously putting it out -- here and when I teach, for example -- because I want more people to embrace this choice, because I have more faith we can reach a livable future if we do that. It is not my intention, ever, to try to “teach” someone who has not chosen to be taught by me. If someone were to come to me to express their distress about what police has done to them, I want to be able to choose to use their language and call it “evil” if I thought this would be the way to convey understanding better than to reach for and name the person’s needs. Ultimately, I want my choice of language to be given by my purpose, not by any sense of “rightness” about the language. I’d like to believe that I can stay true to this intention in moments of challenge.


  1. For an education in the Nature of Mind -- how to completely live in a world beyond right and wrong:

  2. “...instead of being told “this was a great workshop.” I want to know in specificity what happened for the speaker that was meaningful for them.”

    The following anecdote is the other side of this coin, that promotes more innocent connection and less egotism while sharing what we could call “judgments.”

    In 1979 I was offered some unsolicited advice that has stuck with me ever since. I was walking along having just done some singing, when a woman I had just met earlier approached me and said, “I liked your song,” or something to that effect. I received this as a compliment, a positive judgment, on my singing. My response was, “Thanks.” Between being older than I and feeling our strong spiritual fellowship, she boldly recommended that it would be better if I say, “I am glad you enjoyed it.”

    Readers may like to read The Wemmick Story.

  3. I enjoy how you distinguish between needs-based judgments that are internally based on one's own sense of what serves life and judgments that imply some kind of external, objective criteria. I especially liked the reminder to notice the consequences of our words and not hear you to be saying that there are two kinds of judgments and one is wrong. I remember decades ago, at a time of being sensitized to the harm of judgments, noticing that it becomes easy then to judge the judger. What's important about this to me is that working with judgments is, as you say, "we are constantly making judgments." If I judge myself for making judgments, I'm still in it. Or if I judge myself for judging myself, etc. A hall of mirrors. For me, it's ongoing practice, conducted with an awareness of how deep the conditioning is, which then leads to some compassion about the whole thing. I also remember being on a call where you explored what needs are behind the use of judgements, as you did in the example of Nancy here. I liked that this was a needs-based way of working with judgments rather than judging them. I think there can be different needs depending on the situation, and I feel more connected with myself or the other person (whoever is judging) whenever I remember to stop and go to curiosity.

  4. Would you find this perspective useful, Miki? Judgments are attempts to determine whether a particular behavior or characteristic serves our needs by identifying a need (to identify is to judge) and one or more strategies to satisfy it (to identify an effective strategy is to judge). There is therefore no question of getting rid or free of judgments, but of continuously improving them so that we are increasingly accurate when we try to identify our needs and ways to satisfy them. Because judgments are thus critical to our happiness, we all too often hold onto particular ones for dear life instead of acknowledging that to understand our needs and the many paths to satisfy them requires a vulnerable, open attitude of exploration. Ridding or freeing ourselves of judgment no more satisfies our needs than celibacy achieves sexual fulfillment. Defensive grasping at certitude is what destroys contact with both ourselves and others.

    Gary Schouborg

    1. Gary, after reading your post, I went for a walk which beside the shower is a good environment for me to “meditate.” What came to mind is the difference between exercising discernment upon one’s perspective of the circumstances of the present versus being judgmental. If we employ the analogy of judging as an integral part of eating we will see that it is as you say “critical to our happiness” and our health. If judging is to make choices on what to chew over and swallow as regards thoughts, speech, and actions, it seems important to select from what is fresh and nutritious. Thus being in the present moment with an open, fresh perspective, possibly questioning the truth of what is (reading the label, taking a whiff) will bring a good result. This is an experimental and learning process.

      The problem comes from attachment to decisions on what is best in circumstances that seem alike, this being judgmentalness as I define it here. It may begin with a good experince of eating something tasty or where there was a positive result, and then choosing it over and over in an attempt to keep or revisit the same experience. This can make one’s life/diet boring, lacking creativity, diversity and spontaneity. Worse, it could get to the point where one choose to eat the SAME thing repeatedly. By SAME I mean the very same old s__t. This would, of course, lack nutrition after the digestive process has done its job, and be far from appetizing. It gets even worse were one to invite others to partake of it.

    2. Ron, I like your reference to "discernment," which to me emphasizes the experiential nature of effective judgment. Without our experiencing our need, judgment tends to take on a life of its own, so that we fail to experience that personal vulnerability that dissolves the hardened defensive boundaries that prevent real contact.

      I also like your pointing to generalization as one way we grasp at certainty. Generalizing, of course, is at best a handy, efficient way of dealing with circumstances that are significantly similar. Understood as such, it actually helps us explore by ignoring irrelevant differences. But when we grasp any generalization so tightly that it gives us a false sense of certainty, we lose vital touch with our experience.

      By giving an illuminating example of how we can grasp at certitude, you open the door to identifying the many other ways we make that mistake. One that Miki mentions above is objectifying personal preference--e.g., turning my liking of a movie into the judgment that it a good movie, perhaps even one that everyone should see. I believe that identifying the ways in which judgments don't work makes our self-exploration increasingly nuanced. It also opens the door to an empathic exploration of judgment: instead of reactively condemning it, we identify how it helps us meet our needs and how it fails to do so.

    3. I love your commentary on certainty. The Creator bestows upon us what we most need in abundance and what we need less in scarcity. Humanity's current approach in to place more value on what is scarce and less (take for granted) on what is abundant. We have a values problem: they're upside down!

      Thus, certainty is prized to such an extent that people presume it in order to "have it." Yet, what is more abundant in this world than uncertainty. The writer that turned me on to this idea said that we should hold a big party and celebrate our uncertainty. :o)

  5. Hi Miki,

    Very interesting post. I value NVC for helping me live outside of the constraints that our culture's value system puts on our thinking and behavior, because I really value authenticity, creativity, and intimacy with life.

    I've had a lot of experiences in which positive judgments are actually pretty harmful. Probably like you, I've been told a lot in my life about how "smart" I am, or how I'm especially "good" at X activity. My family has always meant "smart," as "it's great that you, and we, are smarter than the rest." The problem here is that I, if I'm not connected to needs-based living, have to worry about being smarter than other people to have value. I have to be on the look-out for people who are as smart or smarter, who make a great comment when I say nothing, who are playing a more advanced piece of music than I am, etc. and I have to "fix" this somehow, get better than them, or else I have to feel terrible about myself. This creates a huge amount of tension with others and internally, and my self esteem is based on seeing myself as superior, it's based on disconnection, so I can't be all that happy.

    One thing I've noticed is that part of the difficulty of being told I'm really good at a particular thing is that if I'm bad at that activity one day, I feel terrible about myself. This makes it harder for me to be open to the process of learning, where you're not always good at the thing you're doing. The judgment -- "she is great at X" -- implies a solidity, a sense of permanence that is not in line with learning, and made me fear doing "poorly." When I was a kid, I was talented at many activities, but I was always so impatient and deeply upset if I ever had the slightest problem. I think the way I was praised contributed a lot to my difficulties back then.

  6. I used to get trapped in thinking judgments were 'bad'. It's hard to shake off my habit of judging.

    I've noticed that what makes a judgment isn't the content, but the tone of how it's said. I can say 'you are evil' in a jovial tone that implies no judgment, but then say 'I'm going to write this comment' in a way that implies that if I don't I'm inadequate.

    Inspired, I wrote a blog post exploring this and talking about silent self-judgments: