The Challenge of Suspending Judgment

This is the fourth blog post in my series exploring Cambria’s new framework on developing globally adaptive leaders, including this initial piece examining my thinking around global leadership development today.

In addition, you can learn more about our globally adaptive leadership framework in a Cambria white paper, Beyond Borders: Developing Globally Adaptive Leaders.

Our framework details five attributes of successful globally adaptive leaders: cosmopolitanism, sensible fearlessness, insatiable curiosity, suspension of judgment, and graceful ease.

My focus this time is on suspending judgment, and this post follows separate pieces on two other attributes: cosmopolitanism and sensible fearlessness.

Suspension of judgment is hard. In fact, it’s impossible — at least for any length of time.

Nonetheless, effective global leaders have developed a capacity to deliberately choose how they’ll respond to a multitude of different people and situations. They are able to pause, just long enough, sometimes just for a few seconds, to become highly aware of their internal reactions before they respond. In so doing, they make their responses a conscious choice.

Suspension of judgment means you listen deeply to people in order to see the world from their perspective. It requires becoming conscious of your own interpretations long enough that you can fully understand an alternative point of view.

It’s simple conceptually, but why is it so hard to do?

Our judgments happen in an instant. There’s no stopping our filtering system from kicking in to interpret our experiences. It occurs instantaneously and unconsciously. There are many ways this impulse serves us: it allows us to simplify our surroundings so we can function fluidly day-to-day. Stopping to think about every single choice-point throughout the day would burn out our brain’s circuitry in short order.

This impulse towards instantaneous, habitual thought patterns and judgments also gets in our way, particularly when it comes to forming relationships in contexts significantly different from our own. Understanding the nature of our filters is a critical step towards learning to suspend our judgment.

Our way of making sense of the world has been shaped in multiple ways — through both chosen experiences (like where we went to university, our profession, our partners, etc.) as well as unchosen experiences (like our cultural heritage, our family of origin, our age, our nascent intelligence, etc.).

Through no intent on your part, you’ve developed an interpretive stance that helps you make meaning of everything around you. In other words, you judge. You cannot not judge. And unless you’re an enlightened Zen master, there’s little chance you can kick the habit of instantaneously judging everyday events.

What you can do, however, is become aware that you’re making an instantaneous judgment. Once you’re conscious of it, you can create a sliver of space — even a few seconds — between your instantly formed thought and urge toward immediate reaction, and determining a conscious, deliberate way to respond.

In other words, you can develop the capacity to suspend your judgment long enough to choose your response. Or even a non-response — a perfectly legitimate option.

How can you do that?

Find ways to create a pause for yourself. Become familiar with your triggers — those circumstances that increase the chance you’ll have an instant reaction. For some people, several deep breaths create the needed space. For others, graciously excusing themselves physically long enough to shift their energy is helpful. The old adages of “counting to ten” before speaking and “sleeping on it” still apply.

And as you can imagine, listening skills are at the core of this attribute. We see this recommendation so often it begins to lose impact. Yet learning to listen, with our head, heart, and full presence, is exactly what’s needed. It’s incredibly difficult. Like spiritual disciplines from many traditions, few will ever master it. But we all need to make the attempt. There are training courses to take, coaches ready to assist, and colleagues waiting to provide feedback and support. There are no excuses for not improving your listening skills, a critical step towards understanding another’s point of view.

In a global context, the payoff for suspension of judgment is huge. With it, you create the basis for trust and authentic relationships with colleagues of all backgrounds. And authentic relationships lead to stronger interpersonal connections, broader understanding of cross-cultural context, greater access to critical information, opportunities for genuine collaboration, and the chance to solve bigger challenges — together.

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