Withhold judgment: You don’t know the challenges others face in their lives

Do you evaluate the world around you using yourself as the standard?

Imagine that you have a box sitting in front of you. This box is filled with everything you’ve experienced: your childhood, education, previous jobs and bosses, challenges you’ve encountered and resolved, people you’ve met, things you’ve observed, places you’ve lived, hardships you’ve endured, and your season in life.
Furthermore, this box contains who you are inherently: strengths and talents, natural tendencies, inner drive, work ethic, athletic ability, propensity toward risk (or not), sense of adventure, ego, and like (or dislike) for people. Also, this box contains the context for your current day-to-day life: you and your family’s health, responsibilities you have for others (children, aging parents, a sick friend, the team you coach), your financial comfort or hardship, your car’s reliability and the comfort of your home. This is your “Box of Life.”
Let’s start with a quiz. The following is a short list of real-life scenarios. Read through the list and for each one, write down the one word that best describes your thoughts as you would observe this scenario.

  • You are on the freeway and the person in the lane next to you is driving erratically, veering side to side, speeding up, slowing down, and crossing lanes. As you observe, what word best describes your thoughts?
  • One of your co-workers misses details. This person seems to work to about 80 percent, and then stops. You happen to pride yourself on attention to detail. What word describes your thoughts?
  • One of your co-workers has recently become unpleasant and frustrating to work with. She arrives to work five to 10 minutes late, at least three days a week. She has become edgy, negative, short-tempered, and her work quality is suffering. What word best describes your thoughts?
  • You are at the grocery store, in line to pay for your groceries. Just ahead of you, there is a woman in line buying a large, expensive birthday cake. You think nothing of it until she pulls out a stack of food stamps to pay for the cake. What word best describes your thoughts?

As I have shared these scenarios in workshops, I hear negative, judgmental words on a regular basis. Here are some examples: idiot, drunk, “expletive,” lazy, careless, apathetic, mad, frustrated, enough, reckless, irresponsible, stealing.
Now, the good news is that I often hear other words that are more about acceptance, concern or curiosity. Let me share what was going on in each of these situations:

  • Our erratic freeway driver was lapsing into a diabetic coma.
  • Details? It may be helpful to know that only 25 percent of the population has a naturally high attention to detail. For these 25 percent, all of the others will very seldom meet their expectations relative to details. The remaining 75 percent, because of their inherent genetic coding, will have to make a conscious effort in this regard and often fall a bit short.
  • The unpleasant woman was actually approached by one of her co-workers, who said, “We don’t know what your problem is, but it’s getting kind of old, and we’re all tired of it.” This woman replied, “I’ll tell you what my problem is: I come to work every day for 10 hours, go home and feed my kids dinner, help them with their homework and get them to bed. Then, I drive to my parents’ house and help my dad take care of my mom, who is dying of cancer. So I’m tired and not very happy right now. That’s what my problem is!” Oh.
  • Someone actually followed the “cake woman” out to the parking lot and said: “Ma’am, I just want you to know that buying that cake with food stamps was inappropriate.” She replied, “I understand your opinion, and here’s my situation: I have a 9-year-old daughter who’s terminally ill, and today is the last birthday she’ll ever have. I have saved food stamps for six months, because I want her to have a nice cake on her last birthday.” Oh.

Here’s the thing: We don’t really know where other people have come from or where they are today. Plus, because we see the world through the lens of our own Box of Life, it puts us at risk of being judgmental. The way we go through life – how we were raised, what we know, what we think, the protocols we follow, how swimmingly we get through our day, how healthy our children are, how much knowledge we’ve acquired throughout our career, how strong an inner drive we have – we think everyone’s life matches this. It doesn’t.
Aleta Norris is a co-founding partner of Living As A Leader, a Brookfield-based leadership training, coaching and consulting firm. You may send Aleta your ‘Leading Generation Y’ question to anorris@livingasaleader.com, or visit www.livingasaleader.com.

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