My two previous posts focused on practices that support skilful advocacy and articulating a point of view, in a way that acknowledges that others may see things differently. In dialogue, advocacy is balanced by inquiry, which invites more participation, awareness and potential in a conversation. This month, I am focusing on one of two practices that support skilful inquiry, namely suspending judgement. Reflecting on the impact of making judgements on our leadership conversations offers a starting place to understand the importance of this practice.
When I advocate, I speak for a position, what I am thinking and feeling. In doing so, I often discover a sense of conviction. When another person holds a different perspective, it can be easy to see them as misguided or wrong because I’m so convinced I’m right! On the other hand, if I’m unsure what I think, I can quickly assume another person knows what they’re talking about!. I then conclude that I’m wrong.
These rapid judgements about what (or who) is right or wrong have ramifications – they can polarise positions, lead to decisions based on flawed assumptions, or limit options. Judgments are advocatory in nature, and if they are internal rather than spoken, we may have closed our mind without even noticing.
When did you last make a judgement that later turned out to be unfounded or inappropriate? What was the impact of that judgement on your thinking? What might have changed if you had questioned your judgement earlier?
To inquire is to seek what is not yet known or understood, such as information not yet included, or a deeper appreciation of how others have formed their view. The practice of suspending judgement supports inquiry, initially in our internal dialogue, providing an opening to be more curious about the provenance, relevance and validity of what is being said, given current circumstances. The practice of noticing, and setting aside our judgements for a moment,, creates space in our minds (and hearts) for new information, perspectives and possibilities. This, in turn, allows us to open potential for different collective thinking our leadership conversations.
Making judgements is a natural, and largely helpful, human process. In every living moment and encounter, we are taking in sensory data and quickly rifling through our ‘back catalogue’ for any similar situations we can draw on and make use of. This rapid recycling of knowledge and experience is practical and efficient. Our brains are wired to make judgements quickly – without this process we would be engaged in a resource-intensive process of working up our response to every situation from first principles. However, making judgements often happens outside our awareness. When it does so, there can have unintended consequences, such as introducing assumptions which do not apply to current circumstances.
We also make and hold judgements about people and their motivations. During case-work in my Dialogue Practice Development Groups, leaders often describe an opposing view as if it is spoken from a deliberate desire to cause difficulty. While this may be true on occasion, it is also possible that they simply interpret a situation differently because their knowledge, interests, and emotional and cognitive reference points are uniquely theirs. I often joke that, despite ‘appearances’, colleagues have usually risen to leadership positions because they have the required experience and attributes! Remembering this can lead to suspending judgements about their motives and wondering how they might have formed their view: what are they seeing? what are they discounting? how are they putting different factors together?
Suspending judgment requires mindfulness – a combination of awareness and a conscious act. It does not mean being ‘non-judgemental’. Instead, it invites us to pay attention to the occasions when a judgement gets in the way and limits what is possible. In suspending judgement, we do not change our mind. Instead we acknowledge that it is unlikely that we have all the relevant information, knowledge or insights. We notice the impact/consequences of our view on our capacity for creative thinking. So we set aside our opinion or belief for a moment and look at a situation anew, without overlaying it with what we already ‘know’. We ask: what if…this doesn’t hold true?
Any intention to suspend judgement is up against general human experience and is sometimes counter to our training and personal preferences. As leaders, we are paid to make judgements – and to make them quickly, confidently, decisively. More generally, we have typically been rewarded for ‘answers’ and certainty. ‘Not knowing’, even for a moment, requires effort. Changing habits of judgment and certainty requires vigilance, commitment, and practice.
Suspending judgement, for a moment, enable is to move beyond polarity in our thinking: this, not that, either/or, right/wrong. We open the possibility that we can create a holding space, or ‘container’, in which all options have a truth, and there is no one truth. Roomier conversations can then unfold, in which ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, and the unpredictable can be navigated with insight. In suspending judgement, we look with ‘beginners mind’ and see things ‘as if for the first time’.
The poet Rumi evokes an ideal:
‘Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing or right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’
What would it take for us to begin to practice suspending our judgements, move beyond their limits, and see what unfolds in our leadership conversations?