After my dad passed away a couple of years back one of his friends wrote to us saying, “One of your father’s great strengths was that he was critical, but not judgemental.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked myself. I mistakenly thought till then that being critical was the same as criticising. And gradually I understood the difference. Being critical means examining the idea or statement or behaviour in a well-reasoned manner. Being judgemental (or criticising) means that you are taking a view on something based on your personal value system. Being judgemental often has an unhelpful ring to it, but being critical need not be negative, and can often be positive. In today’s world the two are used interchangeably and that’s why I initially didn’t grasp what he had written.
Dad always asked the awkward question, quite often much to our embarrassment. He would not accept status quo and he challenged what people said. But he did it not to embarrass the other person. Nor to belittle the other person. He did it to understand why someone did something.
And he did not pass judgement. Even when someone did something that he disagreed with, he would discuss the issue more to analyse it and to help the other person, than to pass a value judgement.
We run a mentoring programme called Take Charge, where mentors are told not to be judgemental with their mentees. When people are judgemental it is difficult to build a relationship of trust, because the mentee will always be worried about being criticised.
Being critical, on the other hand, is fine because people need honest feedback. What we also learnt is that people need to be taught how to give critical feedback without sounding judgemental.
Is it wrong to be judgemental? Yes (and, yes, this is being judgemental!). People who are judgemental may have problems building relationships with others because no one wants to be negatively criticised all the time.
You will also restrict your own learning and growth because you believe you are an expert on everything (a lot like the prime time talk show hosts).
Being critical, on the other hand, is an evaluation which can be valuable feedback for people. In today’s works of being politically correct, a lot of honest feedback is not being given and this results in people having a false sense of themselves.
Russell Bishop, an educational psychologist, gives a lovely example of the difference between judgement and evaluation. “If you look at a couple of different light sources, say a candle and a 100-watt light bulb … you may be able to notice the relative difference in the amount of light being emitted. An evaluation (that is critical analysis) would simply state that one is brighter than the other. A judgement would condemn one as too bright, or the other as not being bright enough.”
When mentoring others, I try hard to control the urge to be judgemental. Sometimes my mentees have hit back when I have been judgemental. And I am glad when they do so, because it reminds me that what people want is critical feedback, not criticism. And I remember what my dad’s friend wrote, “Be critical, not judgemental.” This mantra has helped me develop closer relationships and made me a better listener.