The delusion of the nonjudgemental coach

As a coach, being nonjudgemental is seen as a virtue, an ideal to aspire to, a badge of honour.  We coaches, along with other caring professions, tend to agree it is an essential attitude to adopt for our clients to grow.

However, we don’t have to travel very far to encounter a community who take exception to our mutual reverence of the nonjudgemental attitude.  This is a community who pride themselves on the rigour of their thinking and questioning.  To find them, we have to pass the offices of our natural bedfellows in the psychology department, wander down several corridors and around a number of corners, until we find the department of philosophy.

Philosophers, old and new, have pondered on the nature of judgement and concluded that nonjudgementalism is in fact the precise opposite of a virtue.  It is a vulnerability, if not a delusion. This view is expressed in the plainest terms by Theodore Dalrymple:  ‘Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgment, that nonjudgementalism is at best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism’. (The Rush from Judgement, 1997)

The view is not just a recent one, C.S. Lewis in ‘The humanitarian theory of punishment’ (1949) asserts that ‘Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful’.  Abstaining from judgement, while appearing merciful, in fact shows no respect for the other person, treating them as a child rather than an adult.  Judgement is seen as essential to respect for individual responsibility.  For others, such as William Clifford in ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877), the failure to exercise judgement in forming a belief according to the evidence is a dereliction of duty. 

As coaches, are we really saying that we do not believe in exercising sound judgement?  Or that we do not believe in holding other functioning adults to account for the choices that they make?  No, that does not sound right, so what on earth do we mean by adopting a nonjudgemental attitude?

Well, it turns out that the very word judgement is a slippery thing.  Judgement has a number of meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of which the two most relevant to us are:

(i)                  The formation of an opinion or conclusion concerning something, especially following careful consideration or deliberation.

(ii)                The pronouncing of a deliberate opinion upon a person or thing, or the opinion pronounced; criticism, critique, comment; (sometimes) spec. censure, publicly stated disapproval.

The first definition is associated with phrases such as ‘exercising sound judgement’, while the second definition is associated, in some cases, with phrases such as ‘passing judgement on someone’. 

Already, we can see scope for considerable ambiguity when the word ‘judgement' is used without a clarifying context, and indeed much of the conflict between proponents of judgement and nonjudgementalism is riven with a basic semantic misunderstanding between a benign interpretation of judgement as in ‘I value her judgement’ and a malign interpretation of judgement associated with excessive criticism. 

The latter interpretation appears particularly stressed in the uses of the adjectival form, ‘judgemental’ which, according to the OED, is defined as:

(i)                  Of or relating to judgement; involving or requiring the exercise of judgement.

(ii)                Inclined to make moral judgements; having or displaying an overly critical point of view. 

Of these two definitions, the more common seems to me to be the second.  “Stop being so judgemental” is almost certainly a request to form a more generous, and less overly critical, interpretation, than a request to cease exercising sound judgement.      

The term ‘nonjudgemental’ also therefore inherits this ambiguity.  It can mean (i) avoiding or suspending judgement or (ii) avoiding being overly critical.  So when adherents of judgement and nonjudgementalism lock swords, they might be genuinely opposed or they might be strenuously and paradoxically declaring the same thing: “exercise judgement appropriately!”.  

So what does this all mean for coaches?  I think the term nonjudgemental is too deeply rooted in our coaching culture to change it now, but the ambiguity in the word may cause us to under-appreciate the value and role of judgement in the coaching process.  What exactly is an appropriate use of judgement?  The same lack of precision in our language also means we do not ask ourselves a deeper question, and a true philosophical question: are there times when it is appropriate to suspend judgement according to all its meanings?   This the subject of a future article on this topic.  In the meantime, if you meet a philosopher, consider having a dictionary to hand.