May/June 2002

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Smart Practices: ON BALANCE

In the Hall of Mirrors: Judge Not

Steven Keeva

Making judgments may seem a part of our essential being. But when we form opinions about ourselves and others, we don’t have to accept those judgments as reality. When we come to identify ourselves with our judgments, it can diminish us and harm our relationships. Learn to let go.

Love answers all the questions that judgment fails to ask.

Cherie Huber, Suffering Is Optional

Most of us don’t take time to consider how often we rush to judgment. Nor do we notice that, once there, we linger—not seeing that what began as a transitory thought has somehow become an established fact. We simply know that a colleague is "difficult," a client is "emotional" or a friend is "vindictive." Day-by-day, minute-by-minute, we judge others and we judge ourselves. Unfortunately, most of it takes place below the threshold of our awareness.

Yet our relationships suffer because we come to see the judgments, rather than the people we’re judging, as the reality. The judgments take up tremendous mental energy and space, yet they bring little value to our lives.

Yes, such judging is normal. We all do it. In fact, it’s not, per se, a bad thing—but only if we can see it as it happens. If we learn to notice our judgments as they arise, we then have the power to let them go. And we can move on without their limiting our well-being or our effectiveness.

A Lawyerly Problem: Self-Judgment

Lawyers exercise judgment in their law practices each and every day. Essential legal decisions, of course, require good judgment. But here, we are talking about the judgmental tendencies that put other people—and ourselves—into rigid boxes.

For a variety of reasons, self-judgment is an occupational hazard for lawyers. They tend to judge themselves harshly, which is easy to do in a culture that rewards and values winning above all else. Second best just isn’t good enough, and there is always something else that could have been done—another issue researched, another witness called, another theory considered. No one wins every time. But if you consider winning the hallmark of a "good" lawyer, then all lawyers frequently fall short.

In addition to causing inner turmoil, self-judging inhibits a lawyer’s ability to listen to others. It can be hard to hear someone else’s voice over the negative chatter in your own head. Another drawback is that people who judge themselves harshly are often hard on others, too. And if your goal is to hear what a client is really saying, being judgmental toward that person can be deadening.

Being judgmental is deadening because it makes your world smaller. It forecloses possibilities. How can you truly determine what your client needs if you’ve already judged her to be too stubborn to reason with? Step back and think about the basis for your judgment. Is it possible that what you perceive as stubbornness is actually caused by fear? What might happen if you set aside your judgment and, instead, approached your client as someone who fears losing something dear to her? Perhaps you could then hear what she needs. People are more complex than any single judgment can capture.

A Stream of Discomfort

When we identify with the stream of judgmental thoughts that come into our minds, we enter a hall of mirrors in which our reflexive judgments stare back at us, limiting input from the outside world. As I wrote in Transforming Practices:

It’s essential that you be aware of any tendency to judge the client or yourself. When judgments arise, simply watch and try not to identify with them. Know that you are not your judgments, that if you refuse to get caught up in them, they will dissipate and leave you to the work at hand: being present and open for your client.

Awareness is crucial because, although you may not realize you’re judging someone, the person may still sense the judgment. Think of times when you’ve felt judged. Perhaps at first you didn’t understand what the feeling was or what was causing it, but you knew you were uncomfortable in someone’s presence. You probably felt less than accepted or understood, perhaps minimized or invisible.

Some lawyers I know are quite willing to discuss the ways they judge others, including colleagues, opponents and clients. But these are people who have come to understand that judgments harm them, and who now work to move beyond those tendencies. Typically, they credit their heightened awareness of judgment as it arises with more energy and greater passion for their work, as well as a sense of calm and openness.

An Exercise in Awareness

When I become aware that I’m judging someone and can then let go of that judgment, I find doing so significantly changes my state of mind. It’s as if I’ve emerged from a cramped and airless consciousness into a more open, embracing and less fearful mental space. I feel more in control of the way I relate to the world and to other people.

Try this. Think of a client, friend or work colleague. What judgments have you made about this person? Try your best to flush them out. Make a list. Be ruthlessly honest. (No one but you will know.) Now answer these questions:

If I didn’t believe that I knew this about this person—if I hadn’t already judged him to have or to lack a particular quality—what might I be able to see that I have presently blotted out?

What new possibilities might arise in our relationship?

What would it feel like if the next time I saw this person I made an effort simply to let go of this judgment?

You might be surprised.

You can also try to sensitize yourself to judgmental tendencies by pausing for a few minutes in advance of meeting a client, friend or loved one. Remind yourself that the person you are about to see is unique, sui generis, if you will. She is wondrous and unfathomable—someone capable of surprising you again and again, if you let it happen.

Only minds that are open and accepting can answer the questions that judgment fails to ask. The answers will come not in the form of words, but in the quality of presence that non-judgment makes possible.

Steven Keeva (skeeva@ is Assistant Managing Editor of the ABA Journal, author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life and founder of the Web site


  • Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life by Steven Keeva. Contemporary Books, 2002.
  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Delta, 1990.
  • The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999.
  • Suffering Is Optional: Three Keys to Freedom and Joy by Cherie Huber. Keep It Simple Books, 2000.

[SIDEBAR, page 55]

Finding Negative Capability

The 19th-century poet John Keats used the term "negative capability" to describe the capacity to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." For many people, that’s a scary place to be. What is there to cling to? Our judgments, for one thing, because they represent a dependable way of satisfying a need for certainty. But that certainly comes at a price.

Try to notice when your mind starts judging people.

Observe what is going on, what purpose the judgment seems to serve at the moment.

Ask yourself what stops you from letting go of the judgment.

Then try to let it go. What feelings arise? Do you feel vulnerable, exposed, irritable? Or do you start to feel relieved?

Try just sitting for a while without the judgment. Does it try to return? Or as time goes on, do you notice new thoughts, sensations or emotions arising?

Opening your mind in this way can make it possible to allow others to be who they are, without your needing to judge or change them.