Ellie Garraway portrait

Written by Ellie Garraway

Chief Executive of Grit Breakthrough Programmes, a youth charity that delivers personal development and coaching programmes in schools, colleges and universities across the UK.

Recently I’ve been reading through the bank of case studies we’ve collected here at Grit.  In these extraordinarily trying times, they really are a thread of hope and I’ve just loved reading through them. As I’ve absorbed them I’ve noticed a theme emerging: the critical role a place of non-judgement can play.

Time and again this has shown up. Young people talk about the impact made by a coach who doesn’t judge but simply listens and challenges, who is not a parent or a teacher, comes with no agenda or ulterior motive of their own. 

“There was one young man who was always getting in trouble at school, getting kicked out of lessons and fighting with other students. But what made him really angry was that he felt he was being labelled ‘bad.’ What made the difference, what cut through with him was someone, other than a teacher or his Mum, who ’said it straight.’” 

Judgement, judgement everywhere

We all remember the paralysing fear of being judged: being afraid of what the bullies might say, about looking stupid if we put a hand up in class and got it wrong. But when judgement is solely based on how you look, how you sound or where you come from, it can have you denying your own identity. A black student recently told us how “I’d always be finding ways to make my opinions more palatable. For instance, in a seminar about Malcolm X, I softened my support for him for fear of being labelled ‘radical,’ a term which does not fit who I am.”

This has all had me reflecting on the preciousness of the times and spaces that are free from judgement. And is it really that rare?

So I started looking for the spaces where judgement didn’t dominate. I was hard pushed to find any. If you’re curious about this, just notice for 24 hours how many conversations you have each day in which you are talking about how things should or shouldn’t be, what agree or disagree with: judgement is everywhere. It’s in the ether, it’s the air. Social media largely exists to produce and consume it.  To be human means, it seems, is to be entirely inhabited by judgement. 

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise. The way our society operates is predicated on judgement. We are brought up within an education system designed to measure us, grade and sort us, judge us by some external criteria that tell us what we’re good at, and what we aren’t. These norms tell us who we are and where our place should be while our institutions are structured to divide and protect around race, gender, class… From then on it is natural that we look for experiences and opinions that confirm our biases, affirm the judgments we have inherited.

Judgement in the way

Of course, judgement IS important. There are those of us who have careers that depend on making the right judgement call: doctors save lives, pilots land planes, sports managers pick the teams. Judgement is essential. Without it we can’t we decide how and when to act.

But are there times and spaces where judgement really gets in the way. When young people we know are finding their way we can be very keen to agree or disagree with their judgment, keen to deliver our judgement, or even keen to try really hard not to give a judgement. 

The more I listened out for it, the more I realised that – just as these Grit participants had reported – judgement-free space is a rare and precious thing. So, if that is the case, then, how do we create a space of non-judgement? And what does it really mean to be non-judgmental?

What it takes

The first step is to recognise when we are being judgmental.  Judgement is a reflex, an impulse so automatic that often we don’t even notice we are making it. It dominates: we have a ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ about everything. Our responses, our actions are determined by our judgements unless we actively and deliberately seek out another way of responding. 

Those of us familiar with coaching (either formally or informally) are used to supporting another person to achieve their goals. As a coach our role is about questioning, inquiring, testing – all in the service of the ‘coachee’ reaching their goals. It is not about our judgement, our opinion. It is not about what we think of the other person. It is all about creating the conditions, providing the space for the coachee to work through what needs to happen for them to achieve their goals.

And here’s the rub. We still agree, disagree, compare, want to fix, can’t wait to speak, are frustrated: we still judge. But, each time we notice it, our job is to put it aside and come back to our commitment to the goals of the person we are coaching. 

This does not come naturally. It takes effort, practice and commitment. But we know it can be transformational. 

Judgement serving

Of course, even in the coaching scenario we have to make judgements: we judge the boundaries of the relationship, the most useful questions to ask, the right time to wind up a session, when to move from ideas to action.  But the difference is that we are using our judgement to serve the goals of the person we are coaching. And that is distinctly different from our judgement ‘using’ us.

This is liberating for the young person being coached: “It was such a huge release to be speaking thoughts and ideas that I’d been suppressing since school – sharing my story with no filter; genuinely empowered to be completely honest with myself and with everyone else in the room.” 

And it is liberating for the coach: “To achieve what I want to achieve with students means that I have to let go. The choice about whether to behave in school is theirs and theirs alone.

So, we can never be entirely without judgement (aside from in certain meditative states) but what we can do is build muscle memory that enables us to create spaces where judgement doesn’t determine our responses and our actions. We are calling on our judgement rather than BEING it. 

We live in divisive times: everywhere young people look they see and hear stark and polarising judgements about gender and race, about who they should be and how they should behave. So how do we look after our own (and their) sense of humanity, of hope, of progress? How do we free them to truly explore who they really are?

Perhaps it’s in the small things. Actively creating judgement free spaces for those young people in and around our lives might just be the best gift you have to give. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll discover that when you offer this, you don’t only liberate them, you give yourself a much needed break from those judgement-dominated conversations that swirl around us everyday. 

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