Take the Judgment Challenge: Why Moralistic Judgment Is Wrong, Why It Feels So Good, and How to Stop It
Written by Jim Knight.

For many reasons, judging people can feel good. Saying something like, “I can’t believe they wore that!” or, “What’s wrong with these administrators?” or, “What are these kids thinking?” could be an attempt to boost our own ego, to make ourselves feel less inept, or otherwise deflect when faced with a challenge. But moralistic judgment is never good for schools, students, or relationships of any kind.

As Marshall Rosenberg writes in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003), “Moralistic judgments imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values.” These judgments are often wrong, and they underestimate the complexities of any situation.

Life can be a struggle for everyone, and we can never truly know what others are going through in any given situation. We may judge someone for what we see as a shortcoming, but it may actually be pretty heroic of them to be doing what they are in the current situation.


“It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

Margaret J. Wheatley, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (2002)

Margaret Wheatley’s words are especially true for coaches. When we feel judged by other people, the last thing we want to do is go to them with our weaknesses and be vulnerable with them. Instead, our instincts are to put our armor on and protect our identity. Because of this, judgment is an intimacy killer and a learning killer.

An important part of a coach’s work is to help establish a clear picture of the current reality, but it is essential to separate judgment from clearly describing what we see. It is one thing to objectively document actions and behaviors, but another to assign moral value to them. Coaches are there to help, so identifying areas for improvement is a key step in the process, but any moralistic judgments can harm the relationship between the coach and the coachee and destroy trust.


What Can We Do to Stop Being Judgmental?

Among the six beliefs I discuss in my book, Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected (2016), is the belief that, “I do not judge others.” The most effective and illuminating conversations are possible when both people see each other as equals and work to communicate that they see each other as valuable people. People want someone who listens, values their ideas, and is empathetic.

There are two simple ways to avoid being judgmental when asking questions:

  1. Listen without assumptions and without prejudging your conversation partner.
  2. Let go of the desire to give advice.

Moralistic judgments usually happen as a quick reaction to something, so it can be difficult to stop. But becoming aware of what’s happening in the moment is the first step to changing the habit.

Take the music in the movie Jaws as an example. If you’re out in the ocean and you hear that music, your reflex is to get out of the water because you know something bad is about to happen. If we can be more aware of when we make judgments — imagine the Jaws music playing every time you’re about to judge someone — we can address it in the moment and stop the behavior before it happens again.


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Take the Challenge!

We’ve developed a challenge for anyone who wants to stop making moralistic judgments, whether it’s in the classroom, at home, or in any other setting or relationship. The rules are simple:

  • Download this PDF
  • Decide how long your challenge will be (one day or one week)
  • Document moralistic judgments you make
  • Document the ways in which you address each judgment
    • Do you have any unknown biases to be more aware of?
    • Was it a misdirected reaction to being challenged?
    • Have you been able to withhold similar judgments after becoming more aware?
    • Etc.
  • Comment on this post with your experience!

I will also be participating in the challenge and posting my own experience, so check back to see what I learn from observing my own habits. Let’s compare our results in the comments!


  1. Eileen Fernandez-Parker

    I grew up with a very judgmental older sister whom I emulated. As a result, I am a very judgmental person. It was not until I became a coach working with adults that I realized how strong and destructive my words were. I have been working on this for a few years now. I am going to take the challenge to see how I am doing.

    • Jim Knight

      Thanks Eileen, I had my first challenge this morning reading twitter. I read about a male religious leader who said something that to me was clearly sexist and racist. So I’m wresting is what do you do when something is moralistically wrong?

      • Aaron

        That is certainly a dilemma Jim. I think the empathetic response might be so try to understand why they believe what they said. Not that it makes it any less moralistically wrong, but maybe easier not to judge.

        • Jim Knight

          I’m wondering if, at least, the right response is one grounded in conviction, but not negative emotion.

      • Danielle Bridges

        Jim, I’m super excited about this challenge! We decided to try the challenge with our elementary campus staff next week! I had a similar question that was posed to me today when we sent out this blog post: “I was wondering if you had quick go to strategies to help with addressing the judgement. I kinda recognize I do it but not sure how to address it per say.” I’d love your ideas about addressing this question.

        • Jim

          Hi Danielle, My first suggestion is to go through the section in Better Conversations on this, and then use the Reflection Guide to go deeper into the concept. If you don’t have the books, and you can get one copy, you must just pose some of the questions for conversation. If people don’t believe in the idea, they’re not going to act on it. Second, I think keeping a journal or list of those times you use moralistic judgment is helpful. Somehow to change, we need to be conscious of the change. Then, coming together with others, to discuss this, could be helpful. That’s what I’ve got :). I hope it helps.

  2. Chase Christensen

    This is very thought-provoking info! I look forward to applying this thinking to all my relationships.

  3. Danica Marjanac

    After reading the chapter Listen for Potential in Quiet Leadership by David Rock, I realised I had filters/judgements/agendas when listening. Thus realising I was an inactive listener. The article above clarifies that I am succeeding in becoming an active listener and need to wear positive lenses in all aspects of life not just in my professional role.


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