The Power of Shifting Judgement to Curiosity

Nathan Gerbrandt

We are surrounded by judgement. I think in many ways we actually enjoy it. I feel this personally, like a defense mechanism that kicks in to build myself up at the expense of another. And it’s everywhere! It’s in the shows we watch, political discourse, social media, and unfortunately it even sneaks into our interactions with colleagues and those we love. Amazingly, it’s often blatant and unashamed. Think about phrases you regularly hear (and possibly utter): “What is wrong with you? “That person has no sense!” “They’re clued out.”

Unfortunately, without intentionality it can be easy to slip into a reactionary stance when you encounter another person’s behaviour you disagree with, find difficult, or simply don’t understand. I recall a former colleague of mine and the inner monologue that crept in: “Why doesn’t he get it?” “What was he thinking?!” There’s a truly cruel (insensitive) element to this kind of judgemental thinking.

When we start a reaction with judgemental thinking, our actions that follow inevitably cause harm and pain to another. Far too often I have seen how reactive judgemental responses can increase tension, strain relationships, or, worse yet, cause further re-traumatization.

When we start a reaction with judgemental thinking, our actions that follow inevitably cause harm and pain to another.

Putting Awareness Into Action

The traumatic experiences in our lives can naturally cause us to engage in the protective survival instincts of fight, flight, and freeze behaviours. Because these survival instincts often emerge in everyday situations that aren’t actually threatening, these behaviours are often misunderstood and difficult to respond to. While they are useful in the face of actual threats, they come across as unhelpful or challenging when they don’t seem to match the situation. It’s precisely these behaviours that create interactional challenges and can stimulate our judgemental response.

For example, a coworker may try to protect themselves from the trauma of a difficult divorce by going into a “freeze” response when overwhelmed at work. This can result in them shutting down and withdrawing from people, being chronically late to work, closing themselves in their office, or missing meetings. Or, for another individual, a domestic breakdown could produce aggressive “fight” behaviours, causing them to become defensive in the face of seemingly harmless questions.

The Questions That Guide Us

I have been writing and teaching about trauma-informed interactions these past years and find it invaluable to examine the internal questions that guide our reactions to discomforting fight, flight, or freeze behaviours. I encourage you to reflect on what’s going on within your inner monologue in that moment between stimulus and response. What are the questions that guide your thinking?

There are of course a range of questions that can guide our thinking, and adopting the right question mindset is both an art and a skill that takes time, effort, and practice. I believe that good questions have the power to lead us away from problems and even change our attitudes. I propose that by adopting a few good questions, we can subdue our inner judgemental voices and instead bring curiosity to our responses.

It can be easy to slip into a reactionary stance when you encounter another person’s behaviour you disagree with, find difficult, or simply don’t understand.

Shift Judgement to Curiosity

One of my favorite sayings at CTRI is “Shift judgement to curiosity.” At the heart of this saying is a call to shift our internal questions and approach a person’s behaviour with openness and curiosity. For example, instead of thinking, “What is wrong with you?” when responding to a challenging behaviour, shift the question to, “What has happened that might be leading to this behaviour?”

“What is wrong with you?” reflects a reactive attitude that implies blame and a deficit in the other person. In contrast, by withholding judgement and taking a moment to internally wonder what has happened that could explain their behaviour, we acknowledge that trauma might be influencing them. In this way we are separating the person from the behaviour.

“What has happened that might be leading to this behavior?”

By allowing the empathically curious question “What has happened to you?” to guide our thinking, we acknowledge that the other person’s context is important. We can cast aside our often self-obsessed attitudes that maybe this is about me and appreciate that there may be a backstory to be learned and respected. This kind of question is truly a paradigm shift and begins the journey to recognizing and respecting another’s perspective as their truth. This enables us to bring in empathy and feeling with another person.

By staying away from judgemental thinking, we also increase the possibility for more helpful creative responses that prioritize connection and healing. And when we allow room for a backstory, we’re better able to consider important societal impacts of discrimination and colonization that may be underlying a person’s behaviour.

One Good Question Isn’t Enough!

While a respectful appreciation of another’s backstory is crucial to shifting our judgemental attitudes, it is not the complete journey. Every one of us is more than the sum of our traumas. I believe there’s a “shadowy side” to trauma-informed care in limiting our focus to “What has happened?” and a possible trauma backstory someone may carry. If we don’t keep going with our question shift, we can unfortunately narrow our view and see people solely for their challenging experiences.

“What is going well for you?”

To take this further, we need to wonder about the questions that get at a person’s story of strength, survival, and resilience. Here we move away from the backstory of trauma towards the conditions that contribute to a person’s well-being. For example, asking, “What is going well for you?”

In any backstory of overcoming adversity, there is also a survival narrative. Part of surviving trauma experiences are the enhanced strengths and potential that can come as a result of facing the challenge. In most cases we have survived because of our strengths, and we have found new and creative ways to live and overcome obstacles. When we consider questions that focus on strengths and what someone is doing well, we’ve made a complete turn from judgement and we contribute to another’s resilience and their ability to flourish!


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Author: Nathan Gerbrandt (MSW, RSW)
Managing Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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