Can coaches ever be truly non-judgemental? (Part 1)

Can coaches ever be truly non-judgemental? In the first of a 2 part piece, Nick Bolton shares 7 Levels of Judgement and Non-Judgement which he proposes we operate from as humans and which dictate the level of non-judgement we can achieve.

Can coaches ever be truly non-judgemental? (Part 1)

10th May 2022

For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about the issue of non-judgement in coaching recently.

I’ve been wondering whether it’s truly possible to be non-judgmental and if there is a more useful way to think about judgement in coaching.

When I first became a coach in the early 2000s, it was taken for granted that coaches would be “non-judgemental”.

Indeed, it was an axiom of the profession, borrowed in large part from the humanistic psychology from which it emerged with its emphasis on unconditional positive regard.

There was never an in-depth conversation about it and it was just assumed to be unproblematic. A coach would simply not judge their clients.

In practice, people becoming coaches were being asked to switch off a typically lifetime habit of making judgements that we all make in one form or another.

Yet there was little, if any, support, training or awareness of what that meant.

Over the years, when talking about coaching, this was something I too would state boldly as a matter of fact. “Coaches are non-judgemental”, I would intone with gravitas and clarity, and everyone would nod along appreciatively at what good people we were.

Perhaps I exaggerate for effect (I can be guilty of that sometimes!) but in many ways this is how it was seen: an inherently good and natural position to take.

The problem is that it’s just more complicated than that.

Believe it or not, coaches are just people. They happen to have done some training in coaching but give or take a few epiphanies they remain just people.

They still naturally judge others in some way whether for their beliefs, their attitudes, their looks, their behaviours, their values or any number of other things.

Indeed, I was particularly struck by this in the “Year 2016”! This was the year, you might remember, that Brexit happened and Trump was elected president. Boy oh boy! I have never seen such an en-masse dropping of the mask of non-judgement as I witnessed in the coaching field that year.

And I don’t say that with judgement. I understand it. There are things that people hold dear to their hearts that crash through the aspiration of non-judgement either consciously or unconsciously.

But let’s not pretend it’s not happening.

Coaches are human and they are just as prone to judge as anyone.

Some of the questions that seems important to explore this topic, it is seems to me, are:

  • What is the nature of that judgement?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How conscious is the coach of doing it?
  • What’s the risk?
  • How might they manage it?
  • How can they deepen the stance of non-judgement

However, as I can’t expect anyone to sit through an 8000 word essay on judgement in one sitting I’m going to split it over two articles.

In this first article, I want to look at the different levels of judgement and non-judgement that all humans might navigate.

Then, in the second article, I’ll explore how coaches can more consciously deepen their ability to remain in a state of non-judgement whilst accepting the innate tendency to make judgements that we almost all have and which it seems are essential to navigate a particular social context.

Defining judgement

Before we go off running helter-skelter through the landscape of judgement, let’s first think what we mean by it.

I’m going to take it as a response to someone else that typically contains both an emotional and rational component.

A rational response alone is more of an assessment than a judgement.

And an emotional response alone is experienced as a reaction.

A judgement, it seems to me, in the way we mean it in coaching is predicated on a sense of knowing something is right or wrong, good or bad, better or worse at some level of rationality.

Thus when we think of a coach being non-judgemental we’re really saying that they have been able to suspend their rational and emotional judgement of someone else’s worldview, values, beliefs etc.

It’s also worth noting that a judgement tends to be triggered by a violation of specific mental constructs most typically, beliefs and values.

We tend not to judge someone for preferring a korma to a bhuna, or strawberry ice cream to mint! We might disagree with them, even vehemently so, but we won’t judge them as we know it’s just taste.

Judgement, it seems, is based on something that we take to be universally true or contextually appropriate. For instance, we might not judge a person for eating a steak but we might if they do so on a vegetarian retreat in full view of the other guests and in violation of the setting!

Thus, judgement is aimed at behaviours, thoughts, values and ways of being that are perceived as deserving of moral indignation, contempt, scorn, ridicule, opprobrium, horror, shame or some other emotion.

So, can coaches truly be free of these responses?

The 7 Levels of Judgement and Non-Judgement

In this article, then, I want to lay the groundwork for the second article by exploring the nature of judgements and their origin.

As I started to think more deeply about this topic, I recognised different layers of judgement and non-judgement.

They are not strictly hierarchical nor on a linear spectrum. However, I think they can be described in some kind of loose and metaphorical way as moving from the deepest level of unconscious judgement to the deepest level of non-judgement.

These levels are not based on research but from my own sense-making and I’d be thrilled to be presented with alternatives.

I do also recognise that there are almost certainly going to be a huge number of sublevels one could identify but I think these seven serve well as a heuristic.

The seven main levels I propose are:

  1. Unconscious Systemic
  2. Unconscious Personal
  3. Conscious Unreflected
  4. Conscious Reflected
  5. Conscious Non-Judgemental
  6. Embodied Non-judgemental
  7. Absolute Non-judgemental

It seems to me that all of them can and probably do exist at any given time within one person. The only one I would discount from that is absolute non-judgement which, I have to confess, I have never encountered in anyone, but which I include here since, after all, who am I to judge it’s not possible!

Unconscious Systemic Level

My wife and I often seem identical in our views – it’s partly why we’re so comfortable with one another.

But my wife is Chinese and I am English and at the start of the COVID pandemic we found we had deep beliefs about what it meant to be human within a society and we discovered that, at first, we were very much at odds with each other.

Coming from a western, liberal, individualistic culture, I had a deeply ingrained reaction to what I initially felt was overreach by the governments of the world. The words of George Orwell felt ever more prescient and I experienced a certain relief, even pride, in seeing Boris Johnson’s discomfort and reluctance (or so it seemed to me) at having to impose restrictions on the people of the UK.

My wife, by contrast, couldn’t understand the reticence of the UK government to act faster, bolder, more determinedly. She felt frustrated by what she perceived as the weakness of western governments in acting and she found a new respect for her own government’s strength and clarity of approach, as she saw it.

In noticing this difference between us we realised that we held deep-seated assumptions about what was right and wrong that were entirely relative to our cultural context and yet, which when looked at carefully, were neither right nor wrong. It depended on the governing principles and values around an individual’s relationship to the collective whole.

Although this was something I was aware of, as we all are, abstractly, there was something profoundly fascinating (and slightly disturbing) about seeing these deeper beliefs surfacing in this way (obviously because I was right and she was wrong!!)

These are what I would call the domain of the Unconscious Systemic beliefs, values, assumptions and so on.

By systemic, I don’t refer to the notion of connected systems, complex adaptive systems and the whole school of thought around systemic work.

Rather I mean, what David Foster Wallace would call, the water we swim in – the system that we exist in that shapes our deepest assumptions of what it is to be human, to be good, to be acceptable, and so on.

The system might be civilisational, national, organisational, familial, or something else. Most typically it’s something we have been surrounded by for a long time, potentially even from birth.

These beliefs, assumptions and values operate at a level beyond conscious awareness unless we choose to critically reflect on them.

When one Unconscious Systemic worldview encounters another, it can very easily provoke judgement since a worldview can seem so self-evidently right or better.

I remember well, watching the play, Life of Galileo by Brecht, in which the priests hilariously caper around in mockery of the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun. It is hard to imagine now what it’s like to not believe this, yet for that worldview, Galileo’s ideas seemed beyond absurd.

These beliefs act as heuristics for action – a shortcut for living, for understanding and for navigating the world in front of us.

Imagine if we had to think about everything afresh each time we encountered some kind of difference. It would be exhausting!

Many years ago, I began to read a lot of alternative history – Graham Hancock was a particular favourite but there were many others. As someone who had studied traditional history during my degree, I was mesmerised by the vastly different perspective these writers offered.

Yet, what I quickly experienced was that whilst each book I read laid out an utterly compelling, well-researched and convincing new explanation, all offered fundamentally different ideas of how history unfolded!

How could this be? And what was I meant to do with that? How could I, a mere dilettante, come to a useful conclusion?

In the end I gave up and fell back on my trusted traditional history.

This was simply my old unconscious systemic worldview being battered by alternatives that left me frustrated. It was easier to fall back on what served me perfectly well all my life. Trust the people who are called “teachers” and “professors”.

(Thankfully, in recent years, I’ve rekindled my fascination for this history whilst holding a level of comfort in not having to know the truth).

This is the level of Unconscious Systemic Judgement.

These are judgements we make from deep beliefs and values that are suffused through our very bones and DNA by the immersion in our culture.

As a coach, they might be easy to miss since we’re often swimming in the same water as our clients and so remain unchallenged by their worldview.

But, increasingly, in a globalised world, this is not the case.

And in a world in which many conventional assumptions are being challenged we are confronted with worldviews that can create deeply felt jolts of judgement even as we try to deny that this is what might be happening.

And how much more comfortable it is to fall back on our unconscious systemic belief system to make sense of the “other”.

The Unconscious Systemic level of judgement is, of course, where you would find unconscious bias too. However, I have purposefully not used this term since, to my mind, it often carries notions of specific kinds of bias that are held by those perceived to have power in some way.

This is clearly part of the picture here, but to only explore it from this angle is to ignore the reality that we all have unconscious systemic worldviews that lead to judgement and, here, I am interested in how any coach may experience judgement and where it comes from.

The judgements that come from the unconscious systemic, it seems to me, don’t even seem like judgements to the person making them. Rather they are experienced as emotional responses of anger, shame, disgust, surprise, dislike, contempt, ridicule. They are not processed as rational judgements that we can immediately get to grips with.

However, given the time to explore the response, it would be possible to identify the underlying belief or value that is being challenged and hence to make it rational.

From my personal experience, coaches, like any human beings, are at risk of judging from this place but attributing their judgement to fundamental values and truths rather than simply unexplored personal worldviews that are up for dispute.

Unconscious Personal Level

Like the Unconscious Systemic level, the Unconscious Personal level hides from view, silently creating judgements that can feel irresistible due to their force and taken-for-granted nature.

However, unlike the first level, these are not absorbed wholesale from the system. Rather they are built up through personal, lived experience.

They are beliefs and values that are born from trauma, pain, joy, heartache, success, failure and much more besides.

If the system is the water we swim in, the personal experience is the shark we see speeding towards us or the potential mate who looks so beautiful today in this shallow part of the reef!

Of course, there will often be systemic influences on both the causes of these experiences and the way we interpret them, but they are predicated on the personal experience and are not an intrinsic part of the system.

These experiences can coalesce into beliefs which then form the basis of unconscious judgement.

Someone who has been married multiple times will likely have a different take on someone who has just got engaged for the first time and is full of the joys of hope and love. They might not realise that they have become cynical about marriage but part of them experiences doubt, fear or some other emotional or non-verbal reaction to what they are being told.

Likewise, the person who has struggled with money when confronted by someone of the same social background who wants to be financially well-off might find themselves reacting emotionally.

As with the first level, the very fact this is unconscious makes it highly likely that a coach will form judgements from this place.

Only if the coach begins to become conscious that the emotional response has a rational backdrop will they be able to see the judgement for what it is.

Conscious Unreflected Level

In the case of the first two levels, the beliefs and values that led to judgement are unconscious.

In a sense, they lie dormant waiting for a trigger and when that trigger comes, they might be shocked by their reaction and not know what led to it.

In the third level, we move to the realm of conscious beliefs and values that lead to judgement.

These are beliefs and values that the holder is entirely conscious of and assume to be true.

They have not, however, taken the time to critically think about them and so they remain “unreflected’.

The holder hasn’t considered where the beliefs come from, whether they are accurate, what evidence there is, what purpose they serve, how they might be wrong, and so on.

Some years ago, I was doing jury service and acting as the foreperson. A fellow jury member went away from the case for the weekend and, when he came back, he announced quite calmly that he didn’t need to talk any further since he had decided over the weekend that the person was guilty.

I was shocked at first. This contravened everything that a jury stood for and I do like to uphold the rules of a situation (I’m a good boy like that and I’ll judge you if you’re not!)

I asked him on what basis he’d come to the decision given that he hadn’t heard any fresh evidence and he hadn’t discussed with us it any further.

“My gut tells me!” he stated without qualms.

“Has your gut ever been wrong?” I queried.

“Yes!”, he said, “Plenty of times!” (I was absolutely and pleasantly amazed by his honesty).

“So, how do you know your gut is not wrong this time?” I asked.

He looked surprised and, to my delight, re-engaged in the process. At the end of the case, he thanked me for challenging him and holding him to account. Looking back, I think he had been struck by the importance of the decision he was coming to for the life of another person.

This comes back to me vividly now because it was clear that what was either an Unconscious Systemic or Unconscious Personal level of belief, had crystallised into a Conscious Unreflected belief. He knew what he believed, but he hadn’t really asked himself how he got to it or whether it was valid.

In a sense, this level of judgement and belief can be the easiest to change if the person is willing to engage in a process of critical reflection.

Conscious Reflected Level

Following the last level, this one speaks for itself.

The beliefs and values here have either come from a journey of critical reflection or they existed before the critical reflection and survived that process of reflection intact.

In many ways, these can be the most stubborn of beliefs and values and lead to the most conscious levels of judgement, since the holder feels they have been scrutinised and found to be valid.

And I should be clear: I am not suggesting that any of these beliefs and values discussed so far are more or less valid than another.

The question for this topic on judgement is to what extent someone is aware of them and committed to them and to what extent does that lead to judgement.

From my personal experience, this is where I see most judgement coming from within the coaching world.

This is the zone of the judgements against Brexiteers and Trumpians (is that a word?) and of judgements against bankers, big pharma, or of anyone who doesn’t seem to fully embrace the values that a coach thinks is clearly important in the world.

We are increasingly seeing an advocacy-based slant to coaching with coaches forming movements for change in multiple ways whether socially, environmentally, economically or something else.

Whilst this might be to be applauded, I believe it comes with a certain need for caution since these movements are typically predicated on belief systems and judgements of what is right and wrong, better or worse, and so on, and I question how this allows for the truly client-first approach to coaching that the non-judgemental approach is based on.

In a sense the level of reflection in these beliefs brings a concomitant risk of an investment in their validity and value that, to my mind, seem likely to make coaching more, not less, judgemental over time.

Conscious non-judgmental

At the level of Conscious Non-Judgemental I think we are entering the realm where coaches try to operate when coaching.

This is the deliberate process of suspending judgement during the session and possibly for the duration of the whole coaching journey.

In phenomenology, this is the act of bracketing – a deliberate and conscious choice to put aside the beliefs and assumptions we hold.

My experience of teaching and supervising many hundreds of coaches is that they almost invariably aim to do this and are largely successful.

However, it is often experienced as an internal battle with the levels of judgements already discussed – unconscious and conscious judgements alike vye for the coach’s attention as they resolutely aim to squash them down.

Nonetheless, these judgements can seep out in facial expressions, body language, intonation, leading questions and even the urge to advise and suggest, whether this is given into or not.

The conscious non-judgemental state is an active one, it’s an attitude that is adopted, not inauthentically but certainly to some degree mindfully and purposefully.

Embodied non-judgement

It seems to me that when someone has coached long enough they begin to develop a certain humility – they’ve seen often enough how their judgements were wrong or not useful, how what they thought would work best, or should be done, would have been the wrong move.

This humility emerges from a deeper awareness of the fundamentally and unavoidably limited nature of one’s own thinking, experience and worldview and as this becomes normalised, there is a sense in which the coach naturalises a state of unknowing.

The coach is no longer deliberately not-judging but rather they have embodied a non-judgemental stance. It comes easily, almost effortlessly, to allow judgement to drop away and to experience the client as they are.

This is what I refer to as the phenomenological centrality of transformative coaching – the coach is interested in the client’s lived experience of what is being discussed rather than assuming that there is some objective truth that can be uncovered or some objective measure of good or bad that we measure the client or ourselves by.

At this level, the coach remains, as Nietzsche would describe, human all too human! They still judge people and situations in a general sense and still have all the other levels of judgement in their life. They are by no means saints or enlightened gurus.

But. And it’s a big but. The position of non-judgement has become a way of being that they can slide into almost effortlessly, stepping out of their own beliefs and judgements in recognition of their limitations.

They make judgements in their life because it’s natural and human but they also know, at a deeper level, that they are simply mental artefacts of an inherently limited worldview.

Absolute non-judgement

The final level is, for me, a hypothetical one. It is entirely possible that someone might be able to enter an absolute state of non-judgement in which they simply don’t judge. Full stop.

I just haven’t encountered it and I’m not sure it’s useful to hold it up as an aspiration for coaches or anyone else. Indeed, to do so is it make a judgement in itself creating an infinite loop of absurd self-cancelling meaning.

And so we’ll leave this one here by itself in its own bliss.

Conclusion

In the second part of this piece on judgement I’ll explore a number of additional aspects including :

  • What is being judged and does that make a difference?
  • Who else do coaches judge if not the client?
  • The risks of judgement, and
  • How we might consciously deepen our non-judgement over time

In this article, I aimed to explore the sources of judgement such that we can begin to better understand what’s driving our responses. It seems almost absurd to suggest a coach can be non-judgemental in any true sense but we have also seen that one can seek to consciously bracket judgement.

If you’re looking for the quick answer to my opening question as to whether coaches can be truly non-judgemental, then my own view is that no, probably not, but that they can achieve deeper and more authentic levels of realisation of the fallibility of their judgements that allows for a true adoption of a non-judgemental stance in practice.

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