Stop Judging Other People And Start Understanding Them

I grew up a very judgmental person.

One big reason for that was being raised in a secular, liberal household within a very religious, conservative neighborhood/town. Understandably, my parents had a hard time being surrounded by so many people who saw the world differently. It frustrated them that others weren’t as grounded in science, rationality, and generosity, leading them to look down on those around them a lot of the time.

As is often the case with parents and their kids, I adopted their mindset. As early as elementary school, I judged my peers who seemed less capable than me. Then, moving onto high school, I openly chastised classmates for their views. That certainly wasn’t the only character flaw my younger self had, but it was a major one.

Judgment comes so easily when we don’t actively try to understand people who think differently from us. It makes us feel safe. By looking down on others, we prop ourselves up. It’s a defense mechanism to protect our egos against the damage that we might incur when someone else makes us feel wrong. Once we’ve judged someone, they can’t hurt us, because we’ve already subconsciously discounted everything they might say. We’ve concluded their words lack validity, so we won’t internalize them.

But with judgment comes closed-mindedness. We don’t just judge ideas as being baseless, ignorant, or stupid, we judge entire people as embodying those traits. And once we confirm in our minds that someone is wrong, we close ourselves off to any of their ideas. We construct an image of a person in our heads from incomplete data about them, and our interpretation of new data is then clouded by the biases of that image. 

Open-mindedness is hard because it requires acceptance of our own potential wrongness, but it’s also the most important tool for personal growth. If we can stay open to ideas different from our own, one of two things happens. Either we realize the new idea presented to us resonates more strongly than our current perspective and we’re able to adopt it, or we consider the idea, decide it doesn’t align with our views, and find our current position strengthened. Both options develop our character. We just have to realize how much space exists for our continued development instead of stubbornly clinging to the idea that we’re finished.

The key to achieving open-mindedness, at least for me, has been actively practicing compassion for others. I see compassion as the opposite of judgment. While judgment requires separation of self from others to raise ourselves up, compassion requires common ground. We must put ourselves on the same level as others in order to understand them. With compassion, we find the common motivating factors that drive someone else to different conclusions.

An easy example for me to use here is politics. As the world (and particularly the U.S.) has become increasingly polarized politically, compassion has leaked out of our political discourse. Liberals vilify conservatives for being ignorant, corrupt, and careless of the lower class, while conservatives vilify liberals for being overly-idealistic, weak, and out-of-touch with “real” people. This is a harder argument for me to make if I’m discussing the actual politicians, because I believe many of them are corrupt, but I can even find compassion for that! At the core of every action taken by every human is a desire to increase feelings of safety, comfort, and acceptance. There are tons of different mechanisms for doing that, but an extremely common one is seeking power. We want the power to keep ourselves safe, to acquire comforts that others can’t, to gain acceptance from those who grant us the power. Unfortunately, the people with power are also the ones we rely on to make others feel better, and those motives don’t always overlap. But I can understand why corrupt (and sometimes evil) people act the way they do.

Of course, most of us don’t have the ear of powerful politicians on a regular basis. A less extreme case is having compassion for neighbors, friends, and family with opposing views. As a liberal, I think about why conservative friends have the views they do given that I know we must share common ground. I think, “How do these views make them feel better?” With economic conservatism, it’s simple: those people’s life experiences have made them think that their privileges are a result of their hard work. The narratives that resonate with them, just like ones that resonate with me, are that working hard is within our control, and our choice to do so deserves to be rewarded. On the other hand, those who don’t share our privileges must not be working hard, and thus they haven’t earned the same safety and luxury that we experience.

In hearing and understanding that perspective, not only am I able to civilly communicate with those people who don’t share my views, but I understand exactly why I disagree with them. I am confident in my belief that while yes, some people lack privileges because they don’t work, most desperately want to work so that they can achieve safety and luxury, but face systematic oppression to prevent them from doing so. There is so much data to demonstrate how that oppression exists based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status at birth, but by opening myself to other perspectives, I researched my own in greater depth and found greater understanding. Plus, I am more capable of conveying disagreement without alienating others because I understand and accept their points. I often find that only with that acceptance can others open up to what I’m saying as well.

Something as controversial as politics is still an extreme example of using compassion to understand people. Compassion is more commonly useful in utterly basic, daily interactions to connect with people more effectively. Another way I think of this is expressing curiosity in someone’s motivations. It’s easy to ask people basic questions about how their day was, a recent trip, or a job, but those conversations often forego opportunities for deeper connection. Instead, I’d like to ask something like why they have that particular job, why they do or don’t enjoy it, and whether it matches up with their passions. And you can do that with almost any initial conversation topic. If someone just went on a trip, ask what kinds of things they did. If they went to a bunch of museums, that signals to me that they like learning, and especially like using trips to learn about new places and cultures. I can ask them whether they’ve always liked utilizing travel to learn, if there are specific types of museums they prefer, etc.

Weirdly, I think the most powerful tool in exercising compassion is projection of your own experiences. That seems counterintuitive because compassion refers specifically to thinking about someone else rather than yourself, but your internal world is by far the most complete encyclopedia of the human experience that you have access to. Within it exists observations of the external as well as a compendium of your own feelings. And it’s completely okay for your experiences to be way different than someone else’s! All you have to do is propose your own experiences as a question so the other person is free to open up about theirs. This technique leads to especially interesting conversations when you ask about motivations that someone else hasn’t considered because then you get to explore together. Figuring out answers with a friend is not only super connecting, it’s engaging and a lot of fun. As a bonus, you feel like you’re helping someone—and maybe you truly are.

The only other thing I can really think to talk about on this topic is potential discomfort that comes with the technique I just mentioned. For example, I had a friend recently talk to me about how she’s really competitive. I projected and asked what made her special growing up. See, I’ve also been very competitive for most of my life because I was a “smart kid,” and I figured she might have a similar background. I can see how asking that question might seem intrusive to some people, but I think the trick is to try to convey that you’re coming from a place of genuine curiosity. It’s subtle and conveyed largely through tone, but I always try to make it clear to the other person that I’m not trying to learn about them so that I can judge the impurity of their motivations. Instead, I want to understand the truth of what drives them and validate their feelings about their actions whether or not they may think those feelings are valid. Accepting others for those feelings brings us closer together and builds crucial trust by rewarding their vulnerability.

Compassion leads to acceptance and away from judgment, which enables us to make numerous deep connections with a wide variety of people. Those connections are what life’s all about! They’re enriching and make us grow. So try understanding people, especially if your first instinct is to scoff at them.