“Once you judge something, you cannot learn from it anymore.” This statement has intrigued me since I first came across it some time ago. But is it true?
I think it’s very easy to judge or label people and thereby put them in a box. We interact with “annoying X”, or “intimidating Y”, instead of really seeing the other person and understanding who they are, why they act the way they do – or how they might have changed since we last met. And then, often unintentionally, we deal with the label in our head, instead of the actual person in front of us.
The same can apply to situations, too, or meetings where our own labels can be in the way of connecting fully with the situation and making the most of the opportunities it presents. For instance, we might think of an upcoming conversation as “difficult” and act accordingly, and thereby limit what might potentially happen in this conversation.
Teaching improvisation at RADA in London, I’ve noticed a similar thing when working with my acting students: Often the most interesting work happens when the actors don’t yet know what the scene is about. While they’re improvising and searching for meaning, they just focus on each other, sensing their way forward intuitively. This often makes their work very nuanced, subtle and compelling to watch. But then, when the actors think they’ve discovered what this scene or the characters are about, often the scene becomes a bit more flat and the actors’ choices more predictable – because they’re now acting in response to their idea of the scene – the label they’ve put on it – rather than what’s actually in front of them.
Even something as basic as someone’s name can already be a limiting label. I’ve noticed that actors often improvise less boldly when using their own names – but once they give each other fictional names, suddenly their interactions become fresher, bolder and more imaginative, and their performance improves. I suspect this is because the actors are no longer limited by their own idea of who they and their partner “are”, and this vastly expands their notion of what’s possible. That is, by the way, why we’ve started to always give each other fictional names in improvisations.
So how can we avoid the trap of getting stuck in our own limiting preconceptions? What can we do to relate to people and situations in such a way that we make our encounters most productive – be it in improvisation, conversations, around the meeting room table… or generally in life?
I have found that the same things that help actors create a better performance also help leaders and teams improve their performance and impact as communicators: trying to stay in connection with the world around us, moment by moment, trying to notice what’s going on and, crucially, trying not to immediately label or judge what we’re noticing.
So how do you actually do this? It’s simple: next time, before you go into a conversation, check for any labels you may have attached to the situation or people and try to put them aside. Once you’re in the conversation:
Really look at what you’re seeing.
Really listen to what you’re hearing.
Notice your body sensations.
You might be surprised by how much more you’re learning and discovering, and how many more options suddenly appear for your conversations and actions that follow…
“Once you judge something, you cannot learn from it anymore.” – True or not?