Suspend Judgment

I’ve mentioned this idea elsewhere, but personal experience dictates that it deserves its own chapter.

At Penn State, when I eventually got around to declaring a major, it was journalism. During high school, in college, and after college, I worked as a reporter and editor for a number of publications. In my idealistic mind, my job was to report the news, not to shape it. That’s difficult to do, because in meetings and interviews I’d often hear people say things I thought were wrong, crazy or evil. Yet my job wasn’t to evaluate the statements my sources made, but to accurately represent those remarks to our readers.

That job required me to suspend judgment, at least for a moment. It was good training for WinSome. The ability to suspend judgment, to let people talk and even to ask questions designed to draw out what they really believe, is key to the art of persuasion.

The reason most people find this so challenging is that the human brain was created to evaluate what it perceives. We naturally judge the validity of what we see and hear so we can make good decisions. We unconsciously do it all of the time. It’s virtually impossible to avoid judging. You can’t not do it.

So, I’m not asking you to stop doing something you’re hardwired to do. I’m suggesting that you avoid verbalizing the judgment that naturally happens in your head. Zip it!

Instead of hearing a statement, rendering a judgment, and announcing it to the other person, just keep it to yourself. The other person doesn’t usually care what you think anyway, and the act of expressing your opinion on the matter typically amps up the tension, rather than strengthens the relationship.

So, I’m going to ask you to flip a simple switch in your brain the next time you hear someone expressing an opinion.

That switch label reads: Ask, don’t tell.

Restrain your instinct to express your contrary view, and instead, ask the person a non-judgmental question designed to draw them out even further.

There are two reasons for this strategy.

  1. People like to hear themselves talk. When you let them do the talking, and encourage them by asking questions, they actually feel better about you. When they hear their own voices, they think you’re smart.
  2. When the other person is talking, he’s also evaluating himself. The best way to get someone to reject a stupid idea, is for him to hear that idea coming from his own mouth. By letting the other person fully flesh out the implications of his views, you may marvel as he talks himself out of those views.

This WinSome technique I learned from my Nan. She would listen intently as I ran my mouth about some subject I had mastered (or so I thought), and instead of slapping me with the sanity stick, or opening up a can of rational intelligence on me, Nan would just ask another question. Her face betrayed nothing but interest, respect and love, as I mentioned in the chapter on Winning Family.

During those little dialogues with Nan, I confess I quickly ran out of reason and evidence, and had to substitute hubris and bluster. My inner voice whispered doubts, and suggested I needed more smarts. Nan never talked over my inner voice.

Now that I seem to have come to my senses, and come down from my high horse, Nan’s not here to ask if she knew what she was doing when she schooled me in civil dialogue. But whether she exercised self-control to teach me a subtle lesson, or she merely manifested her gracious nature, the point is that it worked. Decades later I still treasure the lesson.

To suspend judgment is to exercise self-control for the sake of the cause, and for benefit of another person with whom you hope to cultivate a friendship.

Even if your budding friend asks you directly to render judgment, it’s often best to ask a question. Instead of imposing your opinion, you can help her wrestle with the implications of hers.

Taking a page from Ben Franklin’s book, you can couch your ideas in ways designed to avoid offense. Instead of saying, “that’s wrong,” you might try “I can understand how someone could feel that way,” or “I know you’re not alone in that view.”

In the store where I work, customers often say things that are just wrong. But I don’t usually contradict them. In fact, I’ll sometimes say, “That makes sense. A lot of people believe that.” After which, I go on to state the facts without reference to his inaccuracy. You see, I don’t wish to embarrass my customer.

If only we saw everyone in that light. I suspect if friendship were assigned a cash value, and we received a bank deposit for every friend we made, we’d put a lot more focus saying things in ways that avoid embarrassment for others.

I know that the idea of suspending judgment can seem dishonest to some people. Some of us believe that if we don’t tell people what we think, we’re concealing the truth and allowing them to persist in harmful error.

But that’s never the point of WinSome. We do speak truth, and we do want to rescue folks from harmful error. We just want to do that in the most effective way possible. Embarrassing another person rarely proves effective for purposes of persuasion.