Do you consider yourself pretty non-judgmental? Do you take pride in your open mind and think you seek to understand others before jumping to conclusions?

What I find from working with thousands of leaders over the years is that while many of us see ourselves as open-minded and don’t think we are quick to judge—our actual behavior is quite the opposite.

Successful leaders and high-achievers often have a knack for quick decision-making and a bias for action. These behaviors are assets and contribute to success over the years. But these same behaviors can create a rush to judgment and lack of understanding of why something is the way it is; in other words, a lack of seeking to understand something before jumping to judgment and conclusion.

A great example of the importance of understanding context is highlighted in Steven Covey’s classic book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Although the book was first published in 1989, the concepts he highlighted are timeless.

There is a story in the book that always comes to my mind when I think about the importance of refraining from quick judgment and understanding the context of a situation first.

Covey tells the story of being on a subway next to some very unruly children and their father. The father seemed to be oblivious as the children are disrupting the other passengers with their unmonitored behavior.

You can imagine what most people would be thinking as the children roamed around the subway while the father merely stared into space. We would all probably judge the father as inept, and negligent in disciplining his children adequately. We could even make judgments about the children—labeling them misbehaved and spoiled.

Feeling frustrated, Covey recounts how he confronted the father and pointed out the disruption his children were causing. At that point, the father explained to him that they had all just returned from the hospital. His wife had just passed away a few hours ago. He was still in shock and overcome with grief.

How does your judgment change with the context of the situation?

Do you still think the father is inept?

While it takes a bit more time, seeking to understand the context of a situation or the intent a person has before rushing to judgment about it is something we can all do more of.

Some questions to ask yourself when you find yourself rushing to judgment:

  • Do I know why the person is doing something; from their perspective and not mine?
  • Have I sought to understand that perspective by asking questions and listening to the answers without preconceived notions?
  • Am I aware of my own biases that may contribute to my snap judgments?
  • Do I have the full context of the situation, or just a snapshot?
  • Can I separate myself from my own ego, dropping my need to be “right” or smart?

Pausing, listening, and really trying to “see” someone else’s perspective and the deeper context of a situation involves exhibiting patience and also much practice. It requires shifting the center of attention from your own ego to the other person. It means not focusing on being “right”,  or on your perspective, but seeking to understand someone else’s.

It takes practice, but it is amazing how much more you can “see” that way.

As always, send me a note with your thoughts.  I love hearing them.