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Emotions 101: Judging your Client

Judge, Jury, and Coach

Woman pulling glasses down judgmentally
Do you look at your clients this way? Then this article is for you!

Judgment is one of those acts that we can never let go of. It is an ingrained part of being human, used in the past to defend ourselves in the wild. We judge situations. We judge others. We judge ourselves. We form critical opinions on everything. We make judgments on the value of various things and people. It can be harsh, it can be secretive, it can drive others away—but is its presence all that negative?

This CLCI Live brings Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC) together to discuss the uses and harms of judgment and how we as coaches can use our best judgment into the coaching relationship with clients.

Judgment, Judging, and Being Judgmental

Does the word judgment bring to mind whispered comments or blunt statements about appearance, personality, or behavior? Is it easy to frame the word with its more negative connotations? Absolutely; It can be tempting to wave “judgment” off as just that. Just those negatives thoughts we would like to suppress. But the emotion is more complicated than that. As with many patterns of thinking, judgments are both necessary, beneficial, and capable of harm.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines judging in many ways: from a formal court decision, to an opinion made after discernment, testing and observation, to a determination of the value of something or someone.

Our judgments are subjective. Ours will come from personal experiences, and those around us will be making their own judgments based on their background as well.

We can look at another’s opinions and say that our own is ‘better’ than theirs. We judge judgments. We face judgment ourselves any time we participate in a job interview. We will even face judgment any time we sit in a coaching session with a client.

But, if it is not an inherently negative process, why is it so easy to think of the negatives when we hear the words related to judgment?

Insinuated Finality

Judge hitting a gavel
Should coaches bring gavels to their sessions? Yes!

It is easy to infer something absolute about a judgment. There is a sense of finality we place upon “judgment” just from hearing the word. A judge makes a decision on your court case. You are hired or passed by after a job interview. That is it. That is all. End of story...or is it?

And yet, even in the realm of courts and legal judging, appeals lead to changes in perception and verdicts. Contrary to the impression of finality, judgments can change over time.

Nothing is ever an absolute, but many people are apt to take on black and white thinking that would say otherwise. As with many areas of life (and coaching!), we strive to open up to gray thinking.

Judging Performance vs. Judging the Person

To further distinguish what areas of judgment are more and less welcome in coaching and life, consider what is being judged.

Receiving a judgment on your performance may still sting, but, in general, receiving or passing judgment on performance is not final. A poorly performed task can be improved upon.

A judgment passed on more personal attributes will cut deeper. How many of us fear judgement and are self-conscious of ourselves when we walk into work? A grocery store? On a date?

Go ahead. Be honest. I won’t judge.…well, actually, I will. And that’s the next reality to face.

Treatment for the Judgmental

Here is a bitter pill to swallow: it is impossible not to judge. We all make judgments. We make them on environments, situations, ourselves, and others.

Does this mean we’re free to run around telling others whatever opinions we may have formed about them based on a few sparse interactions and their appearances?

Of course not. Maybe judging can’t be ‘cured’—but it can be ‘treated’. Remember and be actively aware that your judgment of the world and its inhabitants is not the one right judgment.

“You don’t have a choice about being judgmental…You have a choice of becoming aware and learning strategies to separate from judgment and process it,” David Hanscom writes for Psychology Today.

Let's take that awareness with us into the coaching session.

Judging Yourself in a Session

Mans reflection pointing at him
If you don't think you judge, take a good look in the mirror.

Self-judgment does not have to mean putting yourself down. It is knowing yourself as a person: your quirks, your pet peeves, your triggers, your strengths, etc. It is necessary in order to find out what things about you are of value and what can be improved upon.

In coaching, you may need to judge whether you are equipped for a session with a client who brings mental health to the table. It means understanding when partnering with a client is the greatest benefit to both parties, or if the coaching goals are out of your depth professionally speaking .

Judgment is understanding what areas of life you cannot coach on at this time, and then making the call to tell the client that this was not a good fit.

The situations here are less so the times when we should judge a client, but rather to judge ourselves with that client. There will be places that we cannot take ourselves. It is better to acknowledge and end a coaching relationship than to suppress your best judgment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, trust your judgment to dive deeper, to ask challenging questions, and to bring an intellectual intimacy to the coaching session. Our client's pay us because they trust our judgment as coaches and that the value we bring to a client's goals is unlimited.

Many coach gurus will tell you to let go of judgment, the successful few will tell you to embrace it.

When a Client is Judging Themselves

When a client is harshly judging themselves, the session may slow or even stop the forward momentum required for coaching. If a client maintains a defeatist judgment, you might want to reframe. Ask the client about other environments and situations where they may be ‘good’ at the very thing they are judging themselves for. What one finds difficult to do in their workspace may be easy at home, outdoors, with friends & family. Invite the client to explain where context matters and find where there might be alternative judgments.

Other times, a client could double down on their self judgments because of how they perceive their coach’s words. You’ve likely heard it by now, "life coaches don’t give advice". This is not just a matter of scope of practice. Advice may be well meaning, but it runs the risk of discouraging a client. Your idea has now been put on a pedestal above alternatives and options. The client might hear a negative judgment in the presented idea.

“Why” questions can also come across as judgments. Think of a client who comes into the session and reveals that they did not follow through on their action plan to buy a planner.

You ask: “Why didn’t you do our action plan?”

They hear: “You were supposed to go to that store. You were supposed to do something. You’ve messed up instead. They view you as someone who fails or flakes.”

While "Whys" can lead to judgement, they can sometimes be our most valuable tools in discovering the client's true intentions. In the same vein, our client's own self judgements provide us the opportunity as coaches to explore and delve deeper into into limiting beliefs.

Judgment on Trial: Good? Bad? What’s the Verdict?

If I had to decide on the guilt or innocence of judgment, I’d declare a mistrial. It is an important emotion and part of how we evaluate. It can be positive and should be put into practice as we coach. It can be harmful and should be aware of judgments as we coach.

There is no black and white answer on the existence of judgment as an emotion. But it can and will be brought into any part of your life—coaching most of all.


Thank you,

Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC)!

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