Can Coaches Ever be Truly Non-Judgemental (Part 2)

In part 2 of “Can Coaches Ever Be Truly Non-Judgemental?”, we explore a number of key factors around what we judge, who we judge and how we can become less judgemental.

Can Coaches Ever be Truly Non-Judgemental (Part 2)

23rd May 2022

Author: Nick Bolton

This is the second in a two-part article. If you haven’t yet read part one, my advice would be to do so. Not only is it a rip-roaring yarn in its own right, but it’ll help this second part make more sense.

For the lazy (or let’s say, time-efficient) amongst you I proposed in the first part that one can think of judgement as being a combination of rational structure and emotional response which result when one encounters certain beliefs and values that run counter to one’s own.

I also proposed that there are seven fundamental sources of judgements:

  • Systemic Unconscious
  • Personal Unconscious
  • Conscious Unreflected
  • Conscious Reflected
  • Conscious Non-Judgement
  • Embodied Non-Judgement
  • Absolute Non-Judgement

Those nirvanic readers amongst you might have baulked at my statement that I had never met someone of the Absolute Non-Judgement variety and that I discounted it as a realistic position to aspire to (not least because to aspire to it is inherently to judge it as being worthy!)

Finally, I answered the basic question that this article asked with a speculative “no, coaches can’t be truly non-judgemental”.

OK, up to speed? Let’s get into part deux!

In this article I want to do a few things:

  • First, I want to make some key distinctions between judgement, discernment and assessment.
  • Second, I want to explore why judging in coaching is problematic and the risks attached to it.
  • Third, I want to explore what we might find ourselves judging when that dreaded demon strikes.
  • Fourth, I want to think about whom we might be judging. (Hint: it’s not always the client but, young Sherlock, it’s also not only yourself either! Ah you thought you guessed that one!)
  • Fifth and finally, I want to explore how a coach can become more deliberately non-judgemental rather than assuming it’s some kind of switch we flick on and off or, worse still, that it’s a full-time way of being that we are failing to live up to.

Judgement vs discernment vs assessment in coaching

Something I’ve noticed over the years with coaching is the wide and indeterminate use of the word judgement. It’s almost as though to have any opinion, any idea, any best guess, is to be judgemental.

So I want to distinguish between:

  • Judgement
  • Discernment
  • Assessment

I won’t do the normal boring old thing of quoting the OED or, god forbid, dictionary.com.

Instead, I’ll offer my own interpretation of these terms as they relate to coaching.

Let’s go in reverse order.

Assessment

Assessment for me is using the rational function to work something out.

There is no emotional component – or at least not one that is a direct response to the thing being assessed. Perhaps you love being rational and assessing things, but that’s an incidental emotion.

When we assess in coaching, we might be doing it with the client through dialogue, on behalf of the client as part of a process, or internally on behalf of the coaching – after all, there are times we assess quickly the right next question etc.

Assessment is clean, rational and non-judgemental.

Discernment

Discernment can happen in multiple ways in coaching which are not exactly non-judgmental but at least appropriate to the stage of the relationship. It can also be used usefully as part of the coaching.

When a coach chooses to work with someone, they are discerning if this is the right kind of client for them. Perhaps the client comes across as someone with a very different value set, or attitudes and beliefs, or even as wanting something that the coach can’t get on board with. There is judgement here but it’s an appropriate one for the coach to make and I would call this discernment.

Equally, as the coach works with a client they might have a feeling that something is off. It’s not a rational, cognitive assessment but an intuition, a gut feeling, a sense of something. I call this discernment. It has emotional content but it’s not being projected at the client – it is informing the coach of something to be looked at.

I’ve often seen and heard coaches who experience these moments choosing to ignore them as they felt they were being judgemental.

I would argue they are not. They’re noticing their own response to something and making some sense of it in service of the coaching.

Judgement

We’ve discussed this in part one and covered it briefly in the introduction here too. But to bring the judgement into the coaching arena now, the coach is judging when they are making something or someone wrong in some way.

Their own beliefs and values are being projected as somehow being more worthy, more truthful, more accurate, more something than the client’s experience, values and beliefs.

We’ll explore how this is problematic shortly.

So, if you find yourself assessing or discerning, go easy on yourself. You’re not judging. At least, not in my book. You might be doing other things – like potentially disempowering the client by doing too much of the work yourself – but you’re not judging.

The risk of judgement

If you’re relatively new to coaching, you might be thinking, “My goodness, this Bolton guy is making a lot of this judgement thing. What’s the big deal? We all do it. It’s normal!”

And, yes, it is, and, yes, we do.

But it’s not useful in coaching and part of our journey as coaches is to learn to minimise, or even eradicate, judgement from the coaching space.

In my experience, this also leads to a natural loosening up of one’s attachment to ever really being right on anything (or what I call Embodied Non-Judgement). I know, dull, eh? Where’s the fun in that? Well, that’s the cross we coaches bear!

So what are the risks of judging?

Risk #1 – Judgement as a barrier to change

Quite simply, judgement is a barrier to the very dialogue and critical reflection that is likely to allow for awareness and change in the person you’re judging. Well done in reinforcing their patterns of belief!

The reason that the Animas 5 Principles of Transformative Coaching has the Phenomenological Principle at the centre is because change will happen most readily and sustainably at the level of the client’s lived-experience and self-awareness not through persuasion, guilt or shame.

Our job as coaches is to enable change to happen by facilitating critical reflection, new awareness and decision making.

As soon as we adopt a judgemental stance, we essentially attack someone’s phenomenological experience of life that includes their worldview, values and beliefs that they experience as being valid.

This attack brings defence and defence strengthens the walls against change.

So at the most fundamental level, judgement is detrimental to the openness for change and is destructive to the very core of coaching.

Risk #2 – You’re probably wrong

The biggest technical problem with judgement is that it’s based on a pathetically unreliable source. You!

Your judgements are no better (or worse) than your clients. What’s that? You think they are? Of course you do! That’s why you judge from that place. How can it be so wrong when it feels so right?

But in truth, your judgemental response is simply a reflection of your own limited phenomenological experience of the world and everything it’s taken to make you who you are.

So there’s a real risk that judgement (even if it were to lead to change) might simply lead to the wrong solutions and changes for the client.

Risk #3 – Collusion and stuckness

An alternative risk is that you and your client judge someone or something else together.

You share the judgement.

Whilst that might feel comfortable, even reassuring and collaborative, it doesn’t do much for the change process.

By entering into a conspiratorial, collusive form of judgement, you stop the client examining themselves and their beliefs and simply project judgement onto the person or thing that isn’t in the room.

Risk #4 – Relationship breakdown

It’s not nice being judged and people can feel when it’s happening.

Whilst it’s certainly not impossible to come back from, judgement can be damaging to the relationship and lead to the client holding back their deepest thoughts, fears, beliefs and so on.

What are we judging?

Areas of judgement

I don’t want to labour this part as the simple answer is: we could be judging anything.

But most typically, as coaches we might find ourselves judging:

  • Attitudes
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Behaviours
  • Results
  • Circumstances
  • Relationships

Going back to our 7 Levels of Judgement and Non-Judgement, any of these areas might find a place in different levels of these categories.

A coach might have an instant judgement of attitudes that butt up against their own that were laid down deep in their childhood at an unconscious level.

For instance, a coach brought up in a working class family and who attended a comprehensive school might have an instant aversion to someone who represents the kind of person who attended a local private school.

Or vice versa.

Or a coach might place high value on committing to decisions and taking clear action having gone through a process of evaluating notions of self-efficacy (Conscious Reflected) and find themselves dismissive of, and annoyed by, a client who seems to switch between different topics without making much progress.

Any coach may be triggered by an aspect of their client’s multifaceted and highly-individual way of being that smacks bang into their own makeup.

My suggestion is to notice where you are most drawn to judge. Start there as it’s likely that something in you needs to be critically reflected upon if you’re to increase your capacity as a coach for non-judgement.

Conditional vs Unconditional

What might be observed in all of the above is that the judgement is about something – it is rarely a universal judgement – and in this sense, taking a concept from transactional analysis, we are most likely to judge an individual conditionally (what they do, etc) rather than unconditionally (who they are).

That said, there may be occasions when certain values and beliefs lead a coach to judge a person wholly – they’re a bad person – and unless the coach can step back and question their own stance here, this is not going to be an effective coaching relationship.

This kind of judgement more often happens for coaches when the coach doesn’t need to actually encounter the real human being – politicians and business people most often represent the target for unconditional judgement. It’s just so easy when we can depersonalise someone.

This issue of unconditional judgement feels existential to me – it’s a reflection on the nature of being a person and the nature of the self. Even when it’s used “positively”, I believe it’s problematic. This is why I have such an aversion to the use of phrases like “the wonderful” as in the overused “the wonderful [insert name here]”. Although this is usually no more than a figure of speech, it has, to my mind, a deeply sinister objectifying component that reduces what is a complex, rich and fully human person to a mere singular banal adjective that is a kind of thing – it has a “the”ness.

That said, let’s move on to the wonderful issue of whom we might be judging.

Whom might we judge in coaching?

It would be pretty easy to think that, in coaching, the person we’re most at risk of judging is our client.

My experience tells me otherwise though.

Judging other people

Through years of supervision, the people I find being judged most are not the clients but the people around the client.

The client becomes this celebrated, if somewhat fallible, human whilst the bosses (usually), colleagues, friends, partners and other parts of the narrative take on 2D like personalities – bit-part players in the drama that unfolds in front of the coach.

The big risk is that we buy the story.

We’re not there seeing the client with their boss, or partner, or colleagues. We are the confidante ready to administer the sacrament of coaching. And we can easily and unwittingly become a bit-part player in the very story we coach on.

All too often I have heard coaches in supervision talk about their client’s boss as though they have had direct experience of them. One coach I worked with unhesitatingly told me they were colluding with their client against the paying organisation because it was toxic and it was all they could do. I would argue that what they really needed to do if there were no other option was to say that the coaching wasn’t working and that they have found themselves pulled too deep into it and to step out. They were no longer coaching in the truest sense but being a subversive element within an organisation.

Judging things and systems

How nice to be able to judge a thing. It can’t talk back!

It’s all too easy to find ourselves as coaches drawn into judging an organisation, a public sector agency, a government, a police force, a thing.

If we can put a name to it and make it exist as a self-willed entity, bingo, we have something to judge that can’t ever express its own opinion.

This is not to say these organisations are not at fault but, if we assume for a moment that we are judging rather than assessing, then we are reacting to these abstract systems from a place of a limited and flawed (aka human) worldview.

How useful will that be to your client in critically assessing their own beliefs and response to that organisation?

Judging yourself

The other person you might find yourself judging in all this is yourself.

“I’m not good enough!”

“I’m useless!”

“My coaching isn’t working!”

These are pretty common statements from a coach, especially in their early years. But notice how these are judgements and not assessments: notice the strong emotional component.

The best place to take this is coaching supervision. Coaching is inherently a messy, emotional, confused, challenging and confronting activity. We all need a place to explore our feelings around our work and supervision provides the perfect antidote to self-judgement.

How can coaches become more non-judgemental?

We’re reaching the end of this two-part article and it’s clear that non-judgement in coaching is important – or, at least, it’s clear that I think it is. I’ve also suggested that coaches can never be truly non-judgemental because they are human and humans have beliefs, values and emotions.

However, that doesn’t mean coaches can’t become more effective at suspending their judgement or even fundamentally realising that their judgements are simply that – judgements, not truths.

This leads to the two levels of Conscious Non-Judgement and Embodied Non-Judgement mentioned in part one.

Let’s finish off by looking at how coaches can be more deliberate in managing their judgements and taking an increasingly more solid stance of non-judgement.

Acceptance

The first thing I believe we need to do, is to accept that we are human and that we judge and to be OK with that.

This is an important.

If we don’t accept that we judge then, when we do (which we do), we are more likely to take the judgements as being objectively true rather than what they actually are: personal judgements. If I’m not a judgemental person and I’m feeling this way about someone or something then clearly this person is bad, this environment is toxic, this person is immoral. I’m not judging, I’m just stating the truth.

Ironically, our inability to accept that we do judge leads our judgements to take on greater qualities of truth. And when something is true, we cease to question it.

By accepting that we judge, we allow ourselves to notice when it’s happening, take a mental breath and move back into a place of conscious non-judgement. We can simply notice that we’re judging and think “ah, there’s my stuff again!’

That’s not to say we should immediately discount our judgement. We might be able to repurpose it as discernment if, and it’s a big if, we can strip away the projective quality it has when it’s a judgement: this person, thing, situation is wrong!

You might even share your judgement with your client and make sense of it together. The judgement might point to something useful which, once defused of emotion, can lead to a useful conversation.

An additional benefit of accepting that we are human and that we judge is that we can go easier on ourselves. It doesn’t serve anyone – the client or yourself – if you leave a session beating yourself up for making judgements. Instead, accept that something got evoked for you in the coaching and take time to reflect, whether by yourself or with a supervisor.

Make a decision to improve your capacity for non-judgement

The next step is to make a decision to improve your capacity for non-judgement.

A coach who is not developing might say, “well, I’m human and I judge and I’ll do my best not to” and leave it there.

But non-judgement is a skill, a practice and a stance and it takes practice and awareness.

Make a decision to work on your ability to remain to non-judgemental, to notice when it’s happening, to move more quickly back out of it and to reflect afterwards on what created the judgement.

Become a reflexive as well as a reflective practitioner. As well, as reflecting on the coaching also reflect on yourself and expand your self-awareness for what gets triggered for you.

Bracketing and Phenomenology

The next piece of the puzzle comes from the field of existential psychotherapy and existential coaching and relates to the deliberate act of parking our assumptions and becoming fully invested in the client’s lived experience of the thing that is being explored.

This the act of Conscious Non-Judgement.

We are mindfully stepping out of judgement. We “bracket” our assumptions and seek to embrace and immerse ourselves in the client’s worldview.

This is not a validation of their worldview, which could lead to stuckness, but an exploration of their worldview without the imposition of your own.

It is deepening the client’s awareness of what their worldview is, and the impact it has. It’s questioning their worldview and experience. It’s challenging it, probing it, bringing it into the light.

Phenomenology is simply the exploration of the subjective experience of something. As a coach, when we bracket our assumptions, we can take a journey of exploring the client’s experience without our own assumptions, values and beliefs getting in the way, or worse still, allowing emotional judgements to detrimentally impact the exploration.

Deepening the stance of non-judgement

In my opinion, the quantum leap in the state of non-judgement comes when there is a movement from Conscious-Non-Judgement to Embodied Non-Judgement.

We’ve explored this briefly but we haven’t explored how to achieve it.

At one level, it seems to be a natural outcome for someone who coaches for a long enough period of time. Somehow, we just notice how often our judgements, discernments and assessments are faulty in some way.

This in turn creates a deeper sense of humility in how we think about ourselves, our rightness, our ideas, our assumptions and so on.

It doesn’t mean we don’t have them. We’re human; we need them. But we know at a deeper level that they are essentially limited, fallible and relative.

So longevity in the profession is one approach to deepening the stance.

But it is not a given.

It is entirely possible to be a coach for many years and to actually grow in the conviction of being right. This is especially likely if the nature of the coaching relationships that are fostered reinforce the coach’s sense of being right and of being an authority.

For coaches who wish to deepen non-judgement, this is where deliberate practice comes in.

Take time after a session, or a series of sessions, to think about what triggered your assumptions, beliefs, values and so on. Notice where and why you became judgemental.

I consider myself someone who rarely makes judgements within coaching and I typically hold a position of doubt about anything I believe actually being right.

Yet recently, a female client said that she obviously couldn’t charge as much as a male coach as nobody would pay as much for a woman as a man. We had a positive and mutually respectful relationship and so I allowed my sense of shock that someone would be so consciously held back by that limiting belief to pop unbidden from my mouth!

“What?”, I exclaimed, “That’s nonsense! Why should what other people experience dictate what you do?”

At one level, I was being deliberately provocative but I also felt genuine shock and judgement about this belief. As I saw it, whether there is an industry-wide average fee-gap between men and women, why would you allow yourself to be constrained by that. An Unconscious Personal value around personal agency and worth had been triggered for me in that instant.

After the session, I reflected on this and what I had to consider (yet again!) the things that were emerging as emotion-laden values for me that could surface with surprising force.

What’s more, given that they can change over time, the journey of reflective and reflexive practice is a never ending one.

I do believe generally that coaching naturally leads to a greater sense of humility in but the deliberate practice of questioning oneself – being an autosocratic, if you like – is the secret ingredient to non-judgement.

This is what, in transformative theory, is known as critical reflection – deliberate evaluation of the assumptions behind what we believe to be true to question where the beliefs came from, whether they are truly valid, how they might be wrong, what agendas they support and so on.

It is also interesting to see where the line is drawn in our minds. We might be perfectly capable of critically reflecting on certain long-held beliefs but find others seemingly immutable to questioning.

I encourage you to push that bit further. Even if only as a thought experiment.

If something feels so true that you can’t conceive it isn’t and if it entails emotions that can lead to judgement, do the following.

Try saying to yourself something like:

“I don’t have to believe that this isn’t true but how would I experience life if I no longer did believe it? What would change? How would I experience the world around me?”

Whilst this might not lead to a reevaluation of one’s own truth, it might lead to a less judgemental attitude towards those who hold a different view.

Play with it, it ain’t gonna fry your brain software and it might just lead to a wider perspective on an issue.

Conclusion

If you’ve read both parts of this article, thank you! I appreciate you committing your time.

I believe it’s about time we give the issue of non-judgement in coaching (and related practices) more space for consideration.

It’s all too easy to assume that it’s a simple process or that only those with an enlightened perspective should think about becoming a coach.

Neither is true, in my opinion. I believe non-judgement is essentially a skill, a stance and a practice and it’s one we can deepen over time.

I believe the coach will never be able to be truly non-judgemental but that they can grown to see when they are judging and to be able to step back from it, recognising that it is merely an artefact of their limited perspective on the world.

This way we can stop beating ourselves up for being human and begin to focus on developing and deepening our capacity to inhabit this vital stance in relationship to our clients and the wider world.

Author Details

Nick Bolton

Nick is the founder and CEO of the Animas and International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Along with his love of coaching and supervision, he is a a passionate learner with a fascination for philosophy, psychology and sociology.

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