How to Judge People Less

Have you ever seen something left where it shouldn't be and thought, "Who is the idiot who left this here?!" And then remembered it was you?

I have. And you'd think that would cure us forever of our natural tendency to wrathfully assume bad intentions or carelessness or stupidity when others do wrong. But it didn't cure us, did it?

Studies show that when you make a mistake, you'll emphasize the circumstances that made you do it. But when someone else does something wrong, you think it's because they are a jerk. That's regular language. More accurately, when you make a mistake, you will probably think it was because of the circumstances. But for others you probably won't be so lenient. You'll attribute more of the cause to the person's character or personality. You'll assume they did the wrong thing because they have a personal weakness or character flaw.

That's the natural tendency. You aren't a slave to that, of course. You can know about it and do something about it. You can give people the benefit of the doubt deliberately. You can try to think of all the times the person has acted in your best interests in the past and weigh the odds: Were they really out to get you or did they just make a mistake? You can remember times you made the same mistake and regretted it later and assume the other person will do the same. There are lots of ways you can compensate for your mind's natural tendency to pass judgment on others.

Which one should you use? All of them, and try your best. Passing judgment doesn't help you. It doesn't help the other. It doesn't help your relationship. It doesn't help anyone in your life. In fact, it harms all of these. Your judgment sparks a mild (or even intense) anger. That's not good for your health. It puts stress hormones into your system that strain your body. It doesn't help the other. When has it ever helped you when someone thought you were a jerk? Sure, it helps sometimes when someone tells you about a mistake you've made. But it helps you most if they do it with forgiveness and understanding rather than judgmentalness and condemnation, right?

So passing judgment harms your relationship. The anger and bad feelings it causes, even if it's mild, interferes with you two being open, trusting, loving, kind, having good feelings for each other, etc.

And passing judgment is actually bad for everyone in your life, because the state it puts you in doesn't go away right away. So you carry it with you when you go home and talk to your spouse, your friend, your kid. It might be mild, but it's there and doesn't need to be. Just as you can housetrain a dog, you can "housetrain" your brain. Teach it to do the unnatural. Teach your brain to compensate for it's automatic judgmentalness. You will be happy you did.

In an experiment by Dolf Zillmann at the University of Alabama people volunteered to ride an exercise bike. At some point, each volunteer is treated rudely by one of the other volunteers (but who is really part of the experimental team). Later, the volunteers got the opportunity to get back at the rude person (by criticizing him in a written evaluation), and they sought revenge.

There were two different groups going through almost identical experiences, but in the second group, this difference was added: After the person was rude to a volunteer and then left the room, someone else came up and explained to the volunteer that the "rude" person was stressing out because he or she had oral examinations coming up for a graduate degree. In this version of the experiment, the volunteers were still given the opportunity to take revenge for the rudeness but chose not to. Why? They were given an explanation.

You can create an explanation yourself for the behavior of others, or even better, you can find out. I used to work at a place where one of my customers was a really nice guy but kind of odd. One time one of my co-workers criticized the customer for being odd. She had clearly judged him without ever wondering WHY he might be that way. When I told her about his experience in Vietnam (he was shot through the head and suffered brain damage) her harsh judgment of him completely vanished and was replaced by guilt for ever having thought those things about him.

Remember that next time you pass judgment on someone you don't know well. Not even for their sake. Remember it for YOUR sake. Your judgment influences the way you feel and the way you behave toward that person. Harsh judgment makes you feel critical and holier-than-thou, and that doesn't feel nearly as good as compassion. If you make an assumption that the person has circumstances that would explain their behavior, you can feel compassion and that will change the way you treat the person. This is a very important way you can become more like the person you've always wanted to be. Resist the urge to judge and give people the benefit of the doubt.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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