Inside Therapy: When Judging Gets Us Into Trouble

Monday, June 11, 2012


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A cycle of judgment and complaint can drive couples increasingly apart from each other. Here's how to break that cycle. Photo: Ghostboy/flickr.

I’m judgmental. Really judgmental.

And so are you.

You are so judgmental.

You can’t not be. Making judgments about other people’s behavior comes naturally to human beings; it’s wired into the way we think.

We make snap judgments about others continually, and we arrive at more informed judgments regarding those we see regularly—people with whom we either work, live, or share DNA. We observe their behavior over time, and draw conclusions: he’s untrustworthy; she’s fearful; he’s needy; she’s ungrateful.

It's about interpretation

What we rarely realize is that the conclusions we draw about people come not from the behavior we’ve observed, but from our interpretation of that behavior. And interpretation, it turns out, is a wildly sticky subject. When we don’t pay attention to our interpretations of what’s motivating someone’s behavior, we often get bogged down in painful dynamics with people we love. This prevents us from addressing our judgments about them—the ones we all have—in ways that can lead to real change.

Here’s how we get in trouble: as soon as someone upsets us, our brains—activated by emotion—automatically start assessing the situation and processing it in pre-figured ways. This happens in microseconds. What we become aware of as a result of this lightning-quick process is usually a juicy assortment of negative judgments about the other person.

Our built-in cognitive bias

Those judgments were powerfully informed by what social psychologists refer to as the “fundamental attribution error.” This is a built-in cognitive bias that causes human beings to reflexively chalk up other people’s behavior to personality (“Jack is insecure”), instead of chalking it up to the situations those people find themselves in. (“Jack was nervous because he was around so many people he didn’t know.”) When we consider our own behavior, however, this bias is reversed: we tend to think of our own behavior as driven by circumstances. (“I’m only reacting to what you just said!”)

Another example: when it comes to judging our successes and failures, most of us tend to attribute our successes to personality, and our failures to circumstances. Social psychologists call this gem the “self-serving bias”.

These innate cognitive biases can have profound effects on our relationships if we’re not careful.

As long as our attention remains focused on our judgments about another person (“Mary is immature”), not much is likely to change between us. We judge them, they judge us, and the pattern between us deepens.

Next step: complaining

When we hit that impasse, we usually start doing the next thing that comes naturally: we start to complain. (“Mary! You’re always giving people the silent treatment!”) Complaints are attempts to get people to do something different. But trying to persuade people to change their behavior by lobbing judgments at them is not particularly effective—they get understandably defensive, and become resistant to change. Try it with your partner, or friends, or kids, and see how well it works.

So what can we do instead?

Every complaint you have about another person is really a request in disguise. In fact, the central problem with complaints is that the requests behind them get lost.

Consider these familiar gripes:

“What’s the matter with you? When the dishes are piling up in the sink, you can wash them, you know.”

 “It’s not impossible to pick up the phone once in a while.”

“Could you, like, be any later?”

You can probably pick out the appeals implicit in these complaints. But it’s difficult to translate our reproaches into requests when we’re fixated on the other person’s behavior instead of on our own needs.

Turning complaints into requests

To turn a complaint into a request, we first have to figure out what it is we want the other person to do, and then we have to ask for it. This allows the other party to hear us more clearly, and gives them the opportunity to respond instead of defending themselves. They may not give us what we want, but it won’t be because we closed off the opportunity ahead of time. Instead, we will have maximized the possibility for change.

Requests are even more likely to lead to change when we’re able to genuinely acknowledge how our own behavior has been influencing the ways in which other people treat us. An open acknowledgment of our own part in a stuck situation can lead to an entirely new chapter in the relationship.

Imagine if your partner or friend sat you down, looked you in the eye, and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and wanted to let you know some of the ways I’ve been unfair to you lately… I’ve been blaming you for lots of things between us, I’ve been judgmental, I haven’t really considered the situation from your point of view…”

When we hear something like that—even in the most strained of relationships—our guard comes down and our ears perk up, even if just a little. We tend to become pretty receptive to whatever it is we’re about to hear.

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Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence.

For more coverage of relationships, don't miss Archie Roberts on GoLocalTV, fresh every day at 4pm and on demand 24/7, here.


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