Friday, 22 July 2016

Denouement: with More Understanding and Less Judgement

Another bout of relationship problems? A potentially great opportunity at work thrown away, yet again? You'd seen it coming, did you?

The ability to appropriately assess, evaluate and judge situations and people is no doubt a fundamental life-skill. But have we thrown caution to the winds, and perhaps worked a bit too hard on our judgement skills? It can be quite tempting to apply our filters, "casually" rush into snap judgements, and "save time", to regret at leisure later.

In other words, are we understanding less and judging more?

The danger of getting ensnared in a limiting worldview is very real, when we let this part of us go unhinged. We can easily misread signals, gloss over vital facts, make incorrect assumptions, allow biases and prejudices to run amok,  and simply pretend that we “know". The other extreme is when we become over-cautious and get into a compulsive “do-gooder” urge to appear “nonjudgmental”. In the latter case, we may get carried away to the extent that even legitimate issues may get ignored, and that too at great cost. Both extremes are fraught with danger. What’s worse, a lot of it happens without much awareness, like some kind of see-sawing auto-programmed impulsive behaviour.

Not that it always leads to poor results.  At times, Lady Luck can be extraordinarily generous. You still manage to somehow make things work and taste success. And that's precisely when when the bigger danger sets in. You're now convinced that the code is cracked, as you really "know it now".

It doesn't take too long for you to neatly slot people, ideas and situations into boxes and categories. A smug self-righteousness of the malignant kind rears its ugly head very soon! Armed with your own formulae and toolkits, you are now a force to reckon with. At least you've convinced yourself about that, and you just can't go wrong. Time to up the stakes and go for the kill with more audacious goals, targets and some more risks too. But alas, not every situation is the same. At some stage, the plans and formulae do come unstuck.

But turning the gaze inward is not the typical reflex action we love, right? Having come this far, it's natural to try flogging the formulae just a bit further. What you haven't noticed though is that the ground beneath has shifted. Years (and more) of skewed perspectives and patterns finally take a toll. This much at least is evident from the outcomes you now seem to be getting. By the time you (if at all) get a sense of the damage inflicted, it's too late already. Somehow the midas touch is replaced by a spell of horrid misfortune, and you're struggling to regain the momentum.

Talking about the aftermath, consider yourself lucky if you can actually get to the stage of genuine reflection of what went wrong. What exactly was the inflection point from where you missed the plot completely? If this exercise is undertaken with honesty and compassion to oneself, it has the potential to liberate your thinking. And going forward if you can manage to keep the door slightly open to allow for a more nuanced understanding, you'd do yourself a big favour. And also avoid overplaying your hand. That in itself is worth its weight in gold!

So, how can we get there?

Acknowledge & Scan the Territory

The most important step is to recognize your own tendency to be extra judgmental. A reasonably clear indication is when you detect very strong negative feelings about another person, an idea or a situation. On a Scale of 0 to 10, the intensity of this feeling might be 8+. That's a good indication that you are in the process of passing "strictures" and "judgements" that may or may not be appropriate. No harm in stepping back, and taking a second look.

An important tip: practices that help you stay grounded in present moment awareness can also give you a better feel for this process. Your internal radar will give you ample signals and signs.

Use this wake-up call to commit yourself to evolving a broader understanding. It’s a great start if you can make this commitment to yourself at this stage.

The Feelings and Concerns

A strong judgmental streak may go hand-in-hand with intense feelings. There are folks who can also do this in a clinically detached (almost ruthless) manner without explicitly displaying such strong feelings. But, there could be more than meets the eye!

So, it is good to examine what lies beneath, and also drives these judgements. As we do this, we also turn the gaze inward for a while. This is not to suggest that we alone are at fault. Rather, the idea is to only gain a wider perspective.

Sometimes, our judgements are an extension of our own insecurities, anger, fears, disappointments, frustrations, weaknesses and unpleasant aspects of our personalities. Some of the judgements are likely to come from our past experiences, and observations we have made. Our prejudices and biases can also lead to unhealthy judgmental habits. Perhaps,  you end up unjustly holding on to a past experience and its emotional toxicity. Or, maybe you feel very strongly that something is genuinely out of order. For example, you have this "gut feel" that someone is up to some ugly mischief. These are the big red flags.

Insecurity for instance can be a tough nut to crack, especially if we like to believe we are "strong" and "unflappable". Or at least project that image to others. Coming to terms with our insecurity can be a scary prospect. What if it increases one's vulnerability? "What if it makes me look weak or incapable”?

Some of your concerns and apprehensions may be valid and legitimate, and maybe these negative emotions you're experiencing are big red flags crying for attention.

Make notes about all these points in this section. Capture all the clues, signals, concerns and insights. Specifically, jot down unhelpful thinking patterns and assumptions that are driving these feelings and concerns.

Know the Pitfalls & Impacts

It is important to have clarity about the dangers of not keeping the judgmental streak in check. List out potential impacts at multiple levels: dysfunctional, defensive and territorial behaviors in relationships, poor collaboration, failure to capitalize on strengths, lack of trust, sub-optimal outcomes… The impacts can be devastating. Spend some time reflecting on these unflattering and unappetizing possibilities.

Two very important questions to ponder over:
  • What benefits, advantages and outcomes are you losing out on, by persisting with these judgmental habits, biases, prejudices, beliefs, and dysfunctional patterns?
  • How will you gain, by taking a slightly different, or even a radically different line of thinking?

Continue recording your observations, insights and pointers.

Know the Differences

Differences in value systems, priorities, beliefs, attitudes, customs and even approaches to problem solving can lead to poor understanding and low tolerance for diversity. We may end up making generalized and mostly useless assumptions about others.

Here again, awareness is the key to a broadening of mindset. It will not happen overnight. Train yourself to recognize and appreciate these differences.

The next important step is to look for the common ground. A finer understanding of differences will actually help you seek out and define that common ground. Gradually, you’re setting the stage for disentangling yourself from highly restrictive thinking patterns.

Get the FACTS Sorted

You might have surely noticed that a certain process of de-layering has been put in place in the preceding sections. This is the right time to critically examine the facts, and weed out biases, prejudices, exaggeration and all the drama. By the time you reach this section, you’ll be more adept at smoking out a lot of the fluff!

Also, note down facts and data you may have overlooked (intentionally, or unintentionally). This process definitely calls for high self awareness and self regulation. As I've written in other articles, it is important that you don't damn yourself in the process. Instead, start by acknowledging that we aren't perfect.

A few questions to ponder over:
  • What am I refusing to see?
  • What am I refusing to let go?
  • What if my understanding is no longer valid?
  • What if my past experience is not relevant anymore?

While you sort out the facts, it is a good idea to examine the vocabulary and lingo used to frame your understanding.

Edward De Bono used to warn about the danger of "word-traps". Words and phrases are no doubt the basic building blocks of communication. But they can also get us ensnared in a very limited understanding of what's happening around us. We may limit ourselves to "look at the world in a particular way". For example, when someone starts presenting a new idea do we hear statements like "That's a brilliant idea, but it's the same as what we've been doing all this while”? De Bono is of this opinion that the killer phrase “the same as” has killed more good ideas than any other form of response!

So, be very mindful of the phraseology that goes with the sorting of facts. I personally recommend using “What IF” and “What Else” instead of “the same as”. It has the potential to open up many possibilities, at least mentally!

Secret BONUS Tip:
Your ability to listen deeply, with empathy and a genuine desire to understand the other person will be a great asset in this quest for a broader perspective. So, take out time to learn and practice high impact listening skills.

The DEAL Breakers

As mentioned earlier, our patterns of judging others can be quite varied. We may also at times become maniacal in our desire for propriety and political correctness. To the extent that you may want to avoid this entire activity of evaluating/assessing/judging altogether. This can also emerge as a blind spot. Watch out so that your earnest desire to appear as “accommodative or inclusive” doesn't lead to guilt-trips and compulsive do-goodery!

Make sure you draw clear red lines and articulate what constitutes a “deal-breaker”. All the homework you’ve meticulously done in the preceding sections has set the right pace for some of this tough demarcation.

Lack of Clarity about “No-Go” zones has the potential to create misunderstanding with hopelessly mismatched assumptions. Sure, these tough conversations for articulating your red lines aren't going to be too pleasant. But you know pretty well that a stitch in time saves nine! So, don't delay the tough conversations!

What you’d like to see

With all the understanding that’s emerged so far, it’s time to define clear outcomes and set specific expectations. This is also the time to commit yourself to meaningful and well-thought-out strategies and actions going forward.

As you shift the focus towards outcomes and possibilities, the diminishing returns from excess judgements becomes all too obvious! And you have a working model now to channel it effectively. You’re not limited by the experiences of the past.

While you’re at it, occasionally do mull over these questions:

  • What part of the outcome can I keep flexible?
  • What part of the outcome am I open to changing?
  • What conclusions have I made from past observations/experiences?
    • What is the benefit of looking beyond those observations/experiences?
  • What will make me more happy, satisfied, confident, relaxed, and optimistic?
    • What about others?

It helps to routinely remind yourself about this attitude of flexibility and responsible openness! You’ll soon reap the benefits of your twin strategy of embracing more understanding and indulging in lesser judgement!

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