(the title for this article comes from Isabel Myers, Gifts Differing)
The well-known verse, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes” comes from a poem by Mary T. Lathrap published in 1895 entitled Judge Softly and was originally phrased, “Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins.” The old adage has many renditions, and can even be found among the verses of the New Testament, in Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
These sayings remind us of the need to practice empathy, a skill related to Emotional Intelligence. Empathy is stepping into another’s emotional experience with support and understanding and conveying that you grasp what they are going through. Empathy is glue for human relationships – it bonds us together. When we feel and see empathy from someone it creates a safe space for us to be open and vulnerable. It allows us to know that we are not alone in having to face the difficult events and hardships that come with being human. Empathy fosters connection.
But even more importantly, these timeless axioms remind us that we can’t know others if we don’t take the time to find out, really investigate, who they are and from where they come. This may sound simple, but discovering who people are takes conscious effort and can be challenging – even for those of us who have been trained in the art of coaching and facilitating. It entails remaining in the space of asking questions for which you have no answers. Staying open requires curiosity. It necessitates sustained energy and focus to listen generously to the stories of others in the moment.
If we take a lesson from Psychological Type theory, the difficulty, in part, stems from our natural tendency as humans to judge. Type theory tells us that when we are awake, most of our mental activity is accounted for through the processes of Perception and Judgment. Perception was defined by Isabel Myers as the process of becoming aware of things, people, occurrences and ideas – and Judgment, the process of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived. We make quick judgments about people all of the time!
To add to that challenge, we are all prisoners of our unconscious negative projections (not all projections are negative). Projection is a psychological term which refers to taking unpleasant unconscious knowledge about ourselves and assigning those qualities or behaviors to other people – in a somewhat misguided attempt to keep ourselves safe. Negative projections are the main culprit of making quick, biased judgments about others. We make things up about others without checking it out to see if our judgments are right. Just think about the act of driving – the other guys actions are unforgivable (“You idiot!”), but when we do the same thing, its because of some external circumstance beyond our control.
With information that we have “made-up”, we stay disconnected, isolated, protected; on-alert for bad behavior from others that might cause us harm. When people on the team or in the workplace are doing the same thing as we are, the opportunity for transparency, harnessing talent and co-creation come to a standstill.
It isn’t until we pull-back our projections from others and examine where our negative thoughts are coming from, that we can establish good communication, build real relationships, connect and develop trust, and innovate. With friendship, trust and psychological safety in the workplace, all things are possible.
So how can we limit our judgments about others when we formulate our opinions so quickly and unconsciously? Psychological Type not only provides the framework, but it serves as a guide to help us with the task. We do need to be aware of our proclivity for Perception or Judgment (we have a Dominant Function that is either one or the other).
But regardless of our own personal Typology, Myers told us that as a general rule, we should Perceive and Judge, and in that order! This formula can help to balance us in most situations – we can gather enough information to form a well-thought-out decision. However, when it comes to building relationships and trust, Judgment is something that we should only apply to ourselves and our own concerns, and Perception – investigating, listening, clarifying, questioning, curiosity, following the flow of the conversation, staying open to new input, finding things out – is where we need to be with others.
So, when we are in a conversation, all we need to do is ask ourselves, “Am I applying judgment to the other”? If the answer is “yes”, engage perception again! We need to continually call on our Perceiving processes to stay open, be curious and to ask questions about who someone is and where they might be coming from to test-out and dispel the biased projections that we formulate about others.
Myers captured the essence of Perception with these adjectives that she defined in Gifts Differing (Pages 72-73), parts of which are captured here:
- Spontaneity – …the ability to take whole-heatedly the experience or enlightenment of the present moment…or to listen to a confidence with one’s whole heart…
- Open-mindedness –…a willingness to admit to consideration of new facts, ideas and proposals…
- Understanding –…applied to people in order to understand their point of view rather than to pass judgment on their actions…
- Tolerance – …reluctance to settle things for other people…
- Curiosity – …the expectation that what [we] do not yet know will be interesting.
Perception offers us a way to move forward with relationships and to establish trust. When we step back, take a deep breath, and begin to question our own judgments about others, we open possibilities that didn’t exist before. We can open our minds to become more inquisitive, less judgmental, and see with more clarity, the person in front of us. We can set the example and create space for others to feel safe. And in the process, we might just learn more about ourselves.