Suspending Judgement is a Key Leadership Skill

By Dr. Francis Eberle

One of my clients recently had difficulty letting go of some unfair comments from her supervisor. The comments were harsh because the supervisor thought the work was shoddy, but the supervisor had gaps in his knowledge and had overlooked the true quality of the work. My client knew she had to get past the comments, but they still hurt. There were two aspects to grapple with—the personal hurt and the professional relationship. My client had to be objective about the comments and build a more respectful professional relationship.

Instead of just letting the comments go, one way to move forward is hold one issue in limbo while focusing on another issue. In other words, suspend the belief that the supervisor had negative intentions when he made the comment and instead focus on the relationship.

Miscommunication is not uncommon. Conflicts arise because of lack of clarity and confusing purpose. Jumping to judgement about what people say is not helpful. Slowing down or suspending your judgement about their intent and seeking clarity can help de-escalate the tension. For example, when you hear something that surprises you, resist the temptation to judge. Stop yourself, suspend judgment and seek to understand. This allows for time to check the intent.

Taking this approach changes the dynamic and opens up space for a different type of dialog by modifying your communication behavior. This can be hard if you are influencing up. Still, do it. If you are a leader with a resistant team member, the same concept applies.

The goal is to have direct and open conversations. When it comes to highly effective teams, psychological safety is required for this to occur. Large-scale surveys at Google, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead and Amy Edmondson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, all emphasize that safety is key for honest interactions and feedback. That doesn’t mean the conversations are absent of conflict. You want people to be able to speak out and argue if needed, but in the end decisions are made based on evidence. Once there is at least general agreement, everyone goes in that direction, even if they disagree. Shutting people down because you do not like them does not promote safety. As a leader, your job is to make the team members feel safe.

Here are some techniques to suspend judgement, change up the conversation and work toward building trust:

Ask good questions. Open-ended questions are excellent to use here. They can provide you with context and help you see others’ perspectives. Some examples: “I am not sure I am clear on what you are asking.” “Where do you see this happening?” “What ideas do you have that I could do to improve the thing you are talking about?”

If the person repeats himself or herself, the open-ended question is too open and not clear enough. Clarity is key. A more specific approach could be: “I want to be clear about my next steps and how we might work better together.” “Is it this or the other thing that is bothersome to you?” “What exactly are we talking about that I seem to be missing, and what ideas do you have to help the communication between us?”

Take a pause. Let the person talk and wait for more information. Ask, “What is it you are looking for? What else?” Suspend your reaction and try to keep it from escalating. Let them add detail. Keep them talking about reflecting on their observations with an ear for what they are missing. Then you can offer your thoughts about a plan for improvement. Or ask for theirs. If you feel your emotions are running too high to give a coherent answer, it is OK to say, “I will get back to you about a plan.”

State Intentions. Be prepared, direct and clear. State your intention of providing a clear picture of the situation with observable evidence. No conflating here. This is not a criticism of the other person. Carefully lay out why you are upset, the gap between what you are doing and what they may have missed. Talk about expectations and any differences that might exist. Then shift to suggestions for improving the professional relationship.

As a part of being direct, it is also fine to say you were hurt by their statements. Do not get defensive, and stick to the position that you want to improve things so you can move forward.

Switch Roles to Find Solutions. Working toward solutions will take both parties. Switch the roles by asking, “What would you like to do to improve the communication? How would you solve it if you were me?” This requires a different type of thinking for them. Be honest about how some of the expectations might be misplaced. Then encourage more dialog going forward. In fact, schedule additional conversations.

As a leader, the key to balancing emotions, tasks and expectations is not to immediately judge. This provides the safety needed for people to express their ideas. If you know your employees well, it makes the conversations easier. A connected leader already knows much about their employees and is able to bridge such gaps more quickly.

Fortunately, my client did have a direct, honest, and detailed conversation with her supervisor. Starting with observable behavior, she was able to suggest solutions, and as a result, both now understand each other’s views about the situation. This transparency, openness and safety that is required of leaders today.

Connect with Francis to talk about psychological safety and communication at francis@price-associates.com.