Pause Your Judgement and Notice the Beauty

Steam locomotive
A beautiful example of a steam locomotive

I had a wonderful experience the other day that reminded me of my own biases and judgements. I got to see them clearly, and the beauty that exists in those I might judge. I was richer for the increased awareness.

I caught the train into Wellington city and one of the conductors collecting tickets walked along and clicked each ticket and said in a very robotic, short, sharp fashion, “Thank you.” He was stern looking and seemed quite stiff in his body. Click. “Thank you”. Click. “Thank you.” Click. “Thank you.” My judgement: he was bored to tears and going through a learned process or routine. Then magic happened. He finished the ticketing process and stopped to chat with a small group. His whole being softened. His face lit up. He changed roles and was instantly a bright, engaging, excited and friendly character. In that moment, for me, he shifted from being alien and difficult to fathom to a beautiful and vibrant human being. I got to see the problem with my own biases and judgements.

Judgement is a very natural survival- and fear-based process that occurs within milliseconds of meeting anyone. It enables us to simplify the complexity of life and make decisions quickly. It was massively helpful when walking around a corner and meeting a sabre toothed tiger or a mammoth, or a strange cave person. It does help us now as well. Is this a hostile or a friendly audience? Is my customer pleased to see me, irritated, or angry? Judgement is natural and essential. It is not always accurate. Some of our judgements are biases we have learned, as children from our parents or from our own experiences. Often they are very contextual and then get applied generally. They limit our openness to others, particularly those we judge as different.

A friend of mine, who has some clear understanding of some of his biases, was taking his daughter to choose a new school. In meeting with the principal, he heard, paraphrased, “We are largely a white school”. His response: “I may be a racist but that doesn’t mean my daughter has to be.” They went looking for a different school.

Research highlights that diversity in our teams and organisations creates an environment where we get better solutions and results. The varied opinions, experiences, thinking processes, however annoying we may find them from time to time, create variation that challenges and improves the outcomes.

I remember an organisation that decided project managers must be Myers-Briggs ENTJ. Any other type was excluded from being a project manager. Their projects all had a common look and feel, and failed to respond to variation in a similar fashion. It is difficult to learn from others when those others are the same as you. In a different organisation I had consulted with them for several months, and had worked with the manager in a different context for several years. Then, because he was considering offering me a permanent role, he had me psychometrically assessed. I did well in all the cognitive and behavioural aspects, but he turned me down for the role because, in his opinion my Myers-Briggs suggested I was a business analyst, not a project manager. That was a thoroughly unscientific judgement based on his own misuse of the tool. This was in spite of him having observed me as a successful project manager in a variety of different contexts over the years we had known each other.

What challenges are you aware of in building diversity and inclusion in your teams and organisations? What benefits have you noticed? What judgements get in your way? Do you surround yourself with those you feel comfortable with or do you actively engage with those who are different from you, who may challenge your ideas? What value is lost when there is a push for sameness rather than diversity?

Tuning Your Sea Anchor

Wrong turn somewhere
A working sea anchor may have made a difference to this outcome.

A sea anchor stabilises a boat in heavy weather by increasing drag and providing a breaking mechanism. It also supports the boat from turning broadside into the waves, reducing the risk of being swamped or capsized.

We have our own form of internal sea anchor that reduces our speed and keeps us moving in consistent direction. Two components of our sea anchor are our conscience and our inner critic. While our habits, patterns of behaviour and beliefs also tend to keep us following a consistent line, they function more as a corral that limits our movement rather than slowing us or bringing us back in line.

Our conscience is the voice we hear within us that informs us of the right and wrong of what we are doing. This is quite distinct from guilt, which is a condemning voice that comes after an act, refers to the past, and reminds us, from a basis of what we have been taught, of what we should have done. The conscience is a voice we hear in the present moment about what we are doing. It may be overlooked and dismissed, or encouraged and developed. By tuning into and adhering to our conscience we remain more consistently true to ourselves. We are congruent. This is a beneficial sea anchor. Our conscience is often overshadowed by other contributors to our decision-making process such as pressure from others, learned behaviours, habits, or actions arising from being emotional hijacked. One way of tuning our conscience is meditation. As you sit and observe your inner world without judgement you can delve below the din of day-to-day life, observe yourself in your current situation, and gain insights into what really matters to you.

Our Inner Critic also acts as a sea anchor. It tells us we are wrong, whether that is measured as inadequate, evil, stupid, inappropriate, clumsy or a vast array of other possible negative judgements. The familiarity with our Critic stems from its development in our formative years, its voice gleaned from the messages of our parents or other significant people. A lucky few have little to no critic. Unfortunately, most of us have a somewhat noisy, incessant and repetitive voice that goes off any time we move against what others taught us to expect of ourselves. The Critic is not a voice based in any truth. We may believe it is true because we are so familiar with its messages, having heard it all our lives. We can be sailing through life, enjoying the sun, the sea air, skimming the waves in a carefree manner, and suddenly … come to an abrupt halt as our mind is filled with negativity. The Critic is a sea anchor in all the wrong ways. We may have found a zone of productivity, where we really are humming with excitement and ease, creating the results we have wanted, and suddenly we lose all momentum, founder, and have to deal with the impact the negative messaging has on us. The Critic brakes us when we are ready to race, and brings us back to the direction the negative messaging would have us go.

The Critic is a mental habit. Neuroscience highlights that rather than “changing old habits”, it is easier to implement new habits. The underlying principle is that habits, particularly long-term ones, have cut neural pathways in the brain that are deep and fixed, somewhat similar to the channel cut by the river in the Grand Canyon. Attempting to fill in that river would be futile. By implementing a new habit, our focus and attention shifts. The brain doesn’t need to change the old pathway. The more strongly the new habit can be installed, the better. Changing habits requires adjustments to mind-set, motivation and intent. The old habit loses traction as its relevance is diminished by disuse.

To adjust the habitual Critic, it is important to implement another way of thinking and being. One way of doing that is by creating an emotionally-charged, positively-phrased affirmation that you anchor with repetition, and connect with whenever you recognise the Critic is ‘speaking’. Or, reassign the Critic a new role. Imagine the Critic is a member of your internal orchestra. The Critic is currently playing a trumpet at full volume and out of time and tune with the rest of the orchestra. Reassign your critic to the triangle, and coach him to only play when called on by the conductor. It is a matter of asserting yourself against that inner bully. Other approaches can also be used that bring greater inner peace and freedom to be yourself. By adjusting the behaviour of your Critic, you have greater freedom to chart the course in your life that matters to you, and will spend less time foundering or on the rocks.

Are you doing what is meaningful in life? Are you congruent across your thoughts, feelings and actions, and with your values and beliefs? If you want support to be more fully who you are, coaching can be a valuable avenue.