The Journey from Judgment to Curiosity


Any one of my clients will tell you that one of the themes I come back to over and over again in coaching work it the power that lies in shifting our mindset. In particular, there’s one mindset shift above all others that I think holds tremendous potential for healing, peace, balance and fulfillment, whether that’s in our relationships with others, in our work lives, or in our internal dialogue with ourselves. That is this shift from judgment to curiosity.

Let’s pick apart these two concepts a bit more, and then we’ll get into how this shift may be relevant in your life.

One place I like to start when talking about the role of feelings and emotions in our lives is to characterize the qualities of the emotions, in as much detail as I can. Understanding what the emotions are like, how they work and where they often lead is an important precursor to any work around changing how we use them and react to them.

Qualities of Judgment

Judgment to me has several qualities: a negative charge, a tendency to lead to spiraling, and a stickiness. Here’s what I mean:

Negative Charge: if we think of emotions as having a particular charge in one direction, positive or negative, judgment is clearly a negatively charged emotion. It generally involves making us feel worse, not better, at least in the long run. It makes its object smaller, rather than lifting it up or leading to growth.

Spiraling: judgment also has a quality of spiraling downward or out of control, where some judgment leads to more judgment, and reconciliation and peace gets further and further away. Arthur Brooks has written about this dynamic within our political discourse: he speaks convincingly about the dangers of contempt, which I’d consider a particularly nasty form of judgment, characterized by dismissal of the actual worth of the object of the judgment. He lays out how contempt leads to permanent, irreconcilable separation, and contrasts that with anger, which he believes naturally circles back around to reconciliation. (Brooks’ discussion of all this with Ezra Klein is well worth a listen.)

Stickiness: despite being a negatively charged emotion that can spiral out of control, judgment has a real appeal. It can make us feel righteous and superior to cast judgment on others. There’s a comfort and safety in judgment that comes from the re-affirmation of pre-existing thoughts and beliefs. For these reasons I’d consider it a “sticky” emotion – one that we can know intellectually is harmful, yet one that we return to over and over.

Qualities of Curiosity

Curiousity, on the other hand, carries some really different qualities. A few important ones are: neutrality, being a source of motivation and bringing renewal. Here’s what I mean by those:

  • Neutral/centering: You might think that since I’m posing curiosity as an alternative to judgment, it would have a positive charge, as opposed to the negative charge we ascribe to feelings of judgment. Yet I think curiosity is better characterized as neutral—and there’s a real power in that neutrality. Not knowing what we’re going to find is neither positive nor negative, but building up our ability to be curious leads us to greater openness, which leads to growth.

  • Motivating: cultivating our own curiosity is a precursor to personal and professional growth, because curiosity is an amazingly sustainable motivator. In short, doing things because we’re interested in them has way more staying power than doing things because we’re “supposed to” or we “should.” In contrast to the spiraling outward quality of judgment, curiosity brings us back to the table, and back to our own center, again and again.

  • Renewal: returning to curiosity again and again can be like the fountain of youth for our souls. Have you ever heard the term “beginner’s mind”? It refers to the mindset we access when we try to develop a new skill or learn a new practice. It’s this feeling that I come back to when I think of the way curiosity can bring renewal—it lets us start again, clean slate, whenever we want.

Making the Shift: a Three-Step Process

So, with some understanding of the qualities of each of these feelings, I want to suggest that one of the most powerful things each of us can do to make personal and professional progress is to make a mindset shift from judgment to curiosity. This is easier said than done, but it can be truly profound.

Making the shift involves several steps:

  • first, identifying the judgment using a mindful awareness of when judgment is present. Noticing the word “should” is often a dead giveaway here.

  • second, reframing the situation through the lens of curiosity; and

  • third, taking an action—making one step, however small, in the direction where that curiosity points.

Each of these steps is important, and can be helpful on its own. But the real effect of the shift only comes when all three are used together. For instance, it’s important and useful to be mindful enough to identify our judgment, but if we stop there and neither reframe nor take action, we’re not going to make much progress. By the same token, if we just act, without mindfully identifying the judgment or reframing through curiosity, it might help in small ways or in the short run, but it’s unlikely to be as meaningful or sustainable as when we’ve first done the other two steps.

So let’s think about this in the context of a couple of common situations.

Professional/Interpersonal: Re-engaging a Difficult Relationship with Curiosity

Let’s say you’re in a job and are feeling disconnected from your boss. You feel like you’re not getting the management support, or personalized attention, or direct feedback that you “should” be getting. You’re thinking about leaving the job (which otherwise you may like) because you want better support and more investment in your own professional development.

So let’s go through the steps:

  1. Identify the judgment: can you spot it? It’s right there with the word “should”. You’re feeling judgmental of your boss because things are one way, and you want them to be a different way.

    (IMPORTANT INTERJECTION: Just because you identify that you’re approaching a situation with judgment, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We can get really sidetracked in this conversation by going into what’s “wrong” and “right”. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter, because we’re trying to look at changing the mindset we approach these situations with, not the facts or the history of the situation themselves. Ok, back to the program.)

  2. Reframe using curiosity: what about your boss’s own background might have led to this way of being? Was she taught management, or did she just excel at her last position and get promoted? What is it about your own career trajectory, or your personal circumstances, that makes getting direct feedback or professional support (again, a totally valid thing to want) so important right now? How could you approach this situation without judgment?

  3. Take a step: in this case, I think a direct conversation with the boss is warranted. A humble request for additional support, a clear set of things you’d like more of and reasons why. If you can truly approach a conversation like this as sharing your own reflections on what YOU need, rather than telling him/her where he/she has fallen short, you’re likely to get much closer to the result you want. Approaching it as a partnership, a chance for both of you to benefit, is another important tactic here, arising from the curiosity.

Importantly, this process is a practice. It typically needs to be done over and over and over again to truly be effective. Things with your boss might not change right away, but a) you’ll feel better for having been both mindful and direct, and b) you’ll have a basis/frame of reference to return to that conversation if and when you need to.

Judging Ourselves: Applying Curiosity to Our Negative Self-Talk

Probably the most powerful and meaningful place to apply this mindset shift in our lives is when it comes to our own dialogue with ourselves. When we slow down and actually listen to the voices in our own heads, it can be shocking how negative and judgmental they often are.

For me, as for many people, this dynamic is perhaps most pitched/extreme when it comes to how I feel about my body. I’ve struggled with weight for most of my life, and in the last number of years, have really focused in on understanding the ways I’ve been judging myself (and projecting that self-judgment onto others) when it comes to how I look and what that means.

(for some great reading on this topic in particular, I recommend Michael Hobbes’ recent piece in Huffington Post, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece from last year in the New York Times Magazine. Both have helped me enormously.)

So, let’s try the process:

  1. Identify the judgment: this can be hard when it comes to internal dialogue, but the same first step applies: look for “should”. Or, as is often the case for me with food/weight/body issues, “shouldn’t”. I shouldn’t eat that, I should exercise more, etc. A wise person I know calls this the “Greek Chorus of Shoulds” and it’s usually right there below the surface, screaming in our ear. When it comes to internal dialogue, it can be especially helpful to actually physically write out what these messages are.

  2. Reframe using curiosity: one particularly effective way to take a curious, non-judgmental approach to our own self-talk is to imagine a close friend who is struggling with the same issue. How would we speak to that person? What advice, or comforting words, would we offer them? How does that contrast with the way that you’re speaking to yourself? Assuming your self-talk is much more aggressive and harsh, why is it that you’re more inclined to treat yourself harshly than you would a friend?

  3. Take a step: try out, and practice, a different form of self-talk. For me, an important aspect of this is to acknowledge the complexity and difficulty of the issue when I find myself in moments of self-judgment. It’s also an opportunity to practice self-forgiveness.

A last word about self-talk and this dynamic. Like the interpersonal shift, it’s a practice that requires coming back again and again. But there’s one thing I want to nip in the bud. Many of us hesitate to back off of self-judgment because we feel it’s “letting ourselves off the hook,” and that if we’re kind to ourselves, the thing we are feeling judgment about will then spiral out of control. If this is what you’re doing, it’s important to recognize that this reaction is its own form of judgment. Ask yourself: how true is it, based on your experience, that self-compassion will lead to things getting worse? How can I approach this with curiosity? Remember, judgment is the spiraling emotion.

Simple to Try, Complicated to Live

There are clearly many layers to this idea of the powerful mindset shift from judgment to curiosity. Each of the concepts involved warrants its own blog post, and has mountains of sociological and psychological research behind it.

So I have one request, if you’ve made it this far:

Let go of all the complexity, and walk away from this post with just the two words. Judgment. Curiosity. And the next time you’re feeling stressed, down, overwhelmed, detached or in some kind of rut, just come back to those two words, and think about where you are within that larger mindset shift. Awareness is the first step on the path toward building this into a lifelong tool.

If you’re interested to talk more about how these and other concepts can benefit you personally and professionally through working with me as a coach, reach out today and set up a complimentary consult.