I first came across the phrase “non-judgmental” long before I even began training as a psychologist, nearly 30 years ago. I didn't like the phrase then, and I like it less now.
Why? Well, mainly because it is an instruction to not do something. In my experience, being instructed what not to do is never a good way to learn. Recall your very first days of driving a car - if the instructions to you had been “don't accelerate too quickly”, “don't brake too hard”, “don't go over the lane markings”, imagine how difficult it would have been to learn what you could actually do to drive a car safely (and how anxious you would’ve felt!).
The origins of “non-judgmental” are in the humanistic psychotherapy of Carl Rogers. Generations of coaches, counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists have been taught this mantra. Curiously, the idea does not help us avoid all forms of judgment. If I ask you to define “non-judgmental”, you may tell me that it requires not saying or thinking particular things about clients.
But judgment and evaluation can also seem “positive” – when a client comes to a session having completed a particular goal they were working towards and the coach responds with “Wow! That’s awesome – I’m so proud of you!”, it sounds encouraging. But it is, in fact, highly judgmental and evaluative. In this case, we are determining what constitutes good work on the part of the client.
You may be of the view that cheerleading like this is not that bad; however – there is an opportunity cost - and in this case the lost opportunity is affirmation. Affirmation can be thought of as a combination of empathy and summary reflection. It seeks to hold a mirror to the client so that they can see for themselves the ways in which their own values, strengths and resources have been used by them. At its best, affirmation can fuel the process of “verbal persuasion” - one of the four means by which Bandura’s social cognitive theory argues that we develop self-efficacy. The shadow side of cheerleading is that it becomes a subtle external cue or reward; and over time, this may lead to a deepening cycle of the client being motivated by the desire for external praise rather than the internal fulfillment of self-efficacy.
Cheerleading is a judgment. Affirmation is a reflected observation.
The idea that we should avoid judgment does not imply that we should not use our knowledge, experience and wisdom (wisdom = deeply integrated understanding as a result of applied knowledge). Sometimes ethical considerations demand that we bring our knowledge to the fore - for example if the client were at risk of engaging in an activity which may be harmful to their health. At other times, the gentle request by us to share knowledge or wisdom can support the client to clarify confusion or uncertainty and make a useful choice for themselves, with just a little guidance from us.
So, to return to the original question - if we are to avoid judgment, then what should we do? The opposite action to judgment is, in fact, curiosity. Curiosity represents a deep desire to understand as fully as we possibly can, the experience of another. To do this, we seek to make sense of their experience not through our own filters and experience. We figuratively cross the room, stand next to the client, turn and orientate ourselves in the same way as the client. Then we call to mind and engage with their values, beliefs, strengths, fears, hopes and dreams and seek to understand their experience through that lens.
Curiosity should not be conflated with the action of seeking information from our clients because it satisfies some internalised interest of our own. If my client has travelled on foot across South America and I’ve always wanted to do this, extended exploration of this experience is not likely curiosity; rather, it represents the satisfaction of a non-client-centered urge to know something.
At its heart, curiosity is profoundly empathetic.
It asks that we adopt a “naive” or “alien” mindset - setting aside our own assumptions in order to understand what is in front of us. In this context, curiosity is not an action – we are not called on to “have” curiosity about a particular aspect of our client’s experience. Instead, we are called on to adopt curiosity as a way of being, a way of engaging with the world around us.
When I was training as a family therapist 30 years ago, we were taught to imagine that we had arrived from another planet and therefore had no understanding at all of local customs, practises and ways of being. Every single action that we observed would be new and we would therefore need to adopt a curious mindset in order to be able to learn about what we were encountering.
The mechanism by which curiosity averts judgment is very straightforward - judgment arises from passing an experience through our own filters - beliefs, values, past experiences and expectations. When we decide to put these filters aside and look through “fresh” lenses with a continuous desire to understand what is before us, we can no longer form judgments. Rather, we remain open to learning “what is”.
The primacy of the relationship between coach and client cannot be overstated. This relationship always sits at the heart of change for the good. In order to honour this relationship, as coaches we must be warm, engaging, affirming and hopeful. And above all, we must be curious.