Are You Observing or Judging?


Yesterday, I was thinking about observation and judgement, and how it relates to effective communication and coaching.  It reminded me of a particular incident that took place a few years back – an incident I had previously written about on the blog for my book Remarkable Leadership.

We were driving somewhere as a family and, in conversation, I made some comment (about which I don’t remember, and it isn’t relevant anyway).  In reply,  my son Parker, probably about 15 at the time, commented that his mother and I were being  judgmental.

My immediate response was that I wasn’t judging, but making an observation. This led to a spirited conversation in our car about the differences between observation and judgement. The differences are huge and we see them every day.

Here are some examples.

“He has long hair.” – observation

“His hair is too long.” or “His hair needs to be cut.” – judgments

“The table is black.” – observation

“The table is ugly.” – judgement

“She is very skilled.” – observation, if based on truly observing the skills being discussed

“She is better than I am.” judgement, unless there is factual measurement on a criteria that all agree defines “better.”

The conversation we had in our car was more than wordplay or a dictionary challenge. It defines an important concept that we often miss by not thinking clearly. As a leader, when communicating, coaching,  developing others, giving feedback, or making decisions, we need to be crystal clear on our judgements and our observations – and which are which.

What are You Doing?

Are you passing judgement on people and their behavior? Whether positive or negative, spoken or unspoken, those judgements will have an impact on people’s performance (so if you are going to judge, make it positive).

When giving feedback, are your statements largely observational or judgmental? If you try to pass judgement off as fact, you risk being wrong and setting a stage for defensiveness, resistance, or worse.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with making judgments.  Decisions are judgments.  But even then, it is important to separate observation from assumption and judgement. Doing so will help you make better decisions.

The differences between judgement and observation can get cloudy, but it need not be. When we speak or think from a place of observation, there is no assignment of right or wrong, or degree of goodness. Observations are like reflecting a mirror on a situation – simply reporting what we see. Being more observant, and being able to state our observations are important to our ability to effectively communicate, influence, and lead.

While we can find plenty of examples in our personal and professional lives (just focus on this for an hour and you will know what I mean), there will be many opportunities in the U.S.  to notice this and see how the judgement/observation line gets clouded by the upcoming election.

All of the current Republican candidates (and their spokespeople, surrogates, and fans) make statements meant to be interpreted as observations or statements of fact, when in effect, they are merely judgements or personal interpretations. Use the time you watch or listen to campaign related activities over the next couple of days to help you identify and sort out observations from judgements. This practice will help you in your life, and perhaps help you sort out the truth from the massive spin that is employed by the campaigns as well as their supporters.

This practice may help your decide who to vote for (or root against) and more importantly, it will help you be a more effective and genuine communicator yourself, when you keep the difference between observation and judgement clear in your mind.

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  1. Jim says

    The premise seems to be that judgements are bad. The truth is that, at times, they are needed. Some activities and behaviors, and people when they engage in them, are destructive. We should not only observe this but also be able to identify it as such. And, when appropriate, to warn others. The tricky part is to do this while still maintaining the relationship and the hope that things can be different. Also, important is to keep those things that are truly important at the top of the list, while letting go those things that are destructive.

    • says

      Jim – Thanks for your comments. As I stated in the post, judgments aren’t bad necessarily, and we agree that they are at times needed. the big challenge is when we state (or think about) judgments as fact. True, they are our viewpoint and can be an important part of a conversation. Keeping them clearly separate and deliniated will help the relationship immensely.

      Thanks again for weighing in!

      Kevin :)

      • Jim says

        We are mostly in agreement here and you helped me clarify my point. Judgements are only opinions (“our viewpoint”) if there are no absolutes. While I agree that many things that some folks see as absolutes are, in fact, just their opinions, I can not agree that judgements are only viewpoints. Some are, some aren’t.
        Civil society and organizations have rules, norms, expectations, etc., that function as absolutes. For example, It’s more than a viewpoint that you may not steal from the company or harm your fellow employees. Rather than being non-judgmental about this it seems that good leadership would entail clearly communicating these “functional absolutes” and enforcing them. (I’ll resist talking about ontological absolutes – though I do believe that they exist as well) To communicate and enforce (even) these “functional absolutes” requires judgment, not simply stating one’s opinion.
        In short, im suggesting we must not only delineate what is judgement from what is observation, but which of those judgements that are opinion (and therefore negotiable) from those that are more than opinion (and non negotiable).

  2. Bill Curran says

    Mr. Eikenberry,
    I was reading your leadership blog this morning (as I usually do) with interest. However, I feel that you veered into territory that tends to alienate half of anyone’s audience…politics. See your quote below:

    “All of the current Republican candidates (and their spokespeople, surrogates and fans) make statements meant to be interpreted as observations or statements of fact, when in effect they are merely judgements or personal interpretations. Use the time you watch or listen to campaign related activities over the next couple of days to help you identify and sort out observations from judgements. This practice will help you in your life, and perhaps help you sort out the truth from the massive spin that is employed by the campaigns as well as their supporters.”

    In keeping with your column’s theme for the day, it seems to me that you yourself are guilty of casting judgment..intended or not. You single out only Republicans as guilty of “massive spin” that must be analyzed for the truth. I dare suggest that there are many who feel that the current president, his surrogates, and fans play the same game on a regular basis…and with great effectiveness. I offer this as a registered Independent who prides himself on voting for the candidate and not the party (spin). I study both sides in search of the truth. To quote the late Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.”

    This, I hope, demonstrates to you that I try to practice what you offer for leadership development advice…. I would like to think I am making an “observation” and not a “judgment”!

    I wish you continued success. Have a great day!
    -Bill Curran

    • says

      Bill – Thanks for sending me this note in email (though, please call me Kevin!), and then agreeing to post it here as a comment.

      I want to make a couple of comments about your great observations….

      First, while politics can be tricky, I’ve written about them before and will again, not to push my beliefs or agenda but because those running for (and in) office are communicating and leading in front of all of us. They give us a great opportunity to learn through observation – regardless of our political leanings.

      Second, in the post I mentioned I had written about this before – several years ago. In that post I modified here, I wrote about candidates from both parties. In re-writing it today I was thinking about all of the press and commentary about the Republican candidates, but as you describe, it is certainly not a Republican only trait. I apologize that by my omission of comments about another party, I may be seen as guilty of what I was trying to caution us all about.

      Perhaps inadvertently I made my point about how hard this can be – both for us as sending communication and how it might be received by others.

      Thanks so much for your comments – and for being willing to share them here.

      Kevin :)

  3. Kathleen Conway says

    “He has long hair” is also a judgment, but a milder one than “His hair is too long”. An observation would be, “His hair is four inches below his collar”.

    It is also useful to acknowledge the thinking that leads to an evaluation: “When I see someone’s hair below his collar, I think of it as too long, and I don’t like that.”

    The best material I have read on the distinction between judgment and observation is in “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

  4. Paul says

    That brings to mind a saying I recall regarding judgment. I apologize for not knowing the source or perhaps the exact phrase, but it goes along the lines of: “We tend to judge others by their actions, we judge ourselves by our intent”.
    The meaning I take from it is we judge others by the end result of their action. While we tend to judge ourselves more on our “intent” than necessarily what the outcome was.

  5. chris Saeger says

    Good post and clarifying comments by all. In leadership training I have facilitated in the part we spent time distinguishing what you have called observation and judgement. We chose “fact and opinion”.
    My example: It is warm in here(opinion) vs the temperature in the room is 74 degrees F (fact). When I say it is warm in here, I am really saying I am warm, (and usually for the sake of changing something). Owning your opinions and be willing to provide a rationale (like pointing to the thermometer in this case) is the important issue. I feel warm is a way of owning this opinion. Facts on the other hand should be mutually verifiable We can both look at the thermometer.

    It is a great topic to develop further.
    Best regards,

  6. Lynn Davis says


    Observing or judging??? You are creating several conversations on this post. My view is that when I observe, I keep this information to myself. Often, I analyze actions and keep the information somewhere back in my head for future reference. It is something indisputable. it happened or it is true. IAt can be proven. Judging takes on a new perspective. Most people place judgement on other things/actions based on their individual life experiences. It is not based on fact or knowledge. The judgement comes from personal beliefs and views. Judgement is relative to the person’s own standards.

    Thanks for sharing a debatable topic!

  7. Di says

    I liked a post by neale ….on this
    Reproduced below
    My dear friends…

    I’ve decided that I have to stop confusing the simple act of observation with negativity.

    Some people, in an effort to not “put any negative energy into the space,” refuse to say anything about anybody or anything that could be construed as being negative in any way. And if anyone else says anything about any person, place, or thing that is not wholly positive, many people will criticize the speaker for “spreading negative energy.”

    Soon, a certain dogmatism springs up around all this, and suddenly it becomes unacceptable in some “new age” circles to do anything but smile 16 hours a day and say nothing but positive things about everything. In these circles, when someone offers the least little comment, prediction, or description that is less than totally positive, someone else is sure to say, “Are you wanting to create that?”, or “Why are you creating that?”

    (Example: “Gosh, I have a real headache this morning.” “Well, why are you creating that?”)

    After a while, people feel so hogtied, they feel so straight-jacketed, that they’re afraid to say anything about anythinganything unless they can glow from head to toe with positivity.

    I call this a New Age Bypass. It’s psychic surgery, on the psyche itself. It can also turn into a game of “make-crazy,” where people can’t even objectively describe something they’re seeing right in front of their face without running the risk of being labeled a “downer,” or a “negative thinker.”

    (“The stock market certainly had a bad day.” “Well, aren’t you the downer…”)

    Yet an Observation is not a Judgment, and a Description is not a Condemnation. We would benefit a great deal from noticing the difference.

    It is perfectly okay to say “The rain is coming” when, in fact, you can smell it in the air. I remember a day a few years ago where I was at a huge picnic, with about 40 or 50 people attending, when one of the guests happened to say, “Looks like it’s going to rain.” His wife nearly had a conniption fit. “Don’t SAY that!” she snapped. “Are you trying to MAKE it rain?”

    Now I understand perfectly well that we create our own reality, and I have read all the messages of Conversations with God and virtually every other New Spirituality text that is out there that says we do so with the triplet tools of thought, word, and deed. I know all about the As-You-Speak-It, So-Shall-It-Be school of thought on this subject. I belong to that school. But does that mean that we cannot even offer a simple observation, bereft of any judgment or announcement of preference, about what we are experiencing in our lives?

    Of course not. Saying “oh-oh, it looks like rain” does not mean that you are at cause-and thus, at fault-when the rains come. It simply means that you are observing what is going on around you. It means that you are aware. And awareness is one of the greatest attributes that any person could develop.

    The message here is: do not substitute passivity for discernment; do not–in the name of “positivity”–insert total blindness where once there was keen observation. Covering your ears does not make the wind howl any less, and putting your head in the sand does not make danger disappear.

    The ability to observe the environment around us, the ability to discern one thing from another, is what comes with evolving to a higher level of consciousness. Observation is the act of seeing something; it is the simple act of witnessing without assessing. Discernment is the act of differentiation; it is the simple act of telling one thing from another.

    Observation is a statement that says “what’s so.” Judgment is a statement that says “so what”? As sentient beings, humans have a desire to notice what is going on around them. Indeed, they have a responsibility to do so.

    When you consciously and deliberately stop noticing something because you “don’t want to put negative energy into the space,” you forfeit your most precious gift as a creative being: the gift of deciding. You cannot decide what you want, you cannot consciously choose your own future, if you are refusing to look at what is true so far.

    I’m going to keep on working to remove judgment and condemnation from my experience, but I shall never remove observation and discernment. The teaching is, “Judge not, and neither condemn,” it is not, “Observe not, and neither discern.”

    Love and Hugs,

  8. Di says

    And my two cents :)

    You can call it judgement , observation , fact … My comment post is long 😉

    From my current level of emotional , physical, mental ,spritual development .. (A result of life choices , patterns , experiences across lifetimes )
    All beings on the earth are here of their choice on a journey of non consciousness to consciousness…..All have the spiritual goal of Growing , Evolving self And contributing supporting to growth , evolving of all souls , all of us being Children/ divine sparks , rays of the same Source , Energy , sun , Divine light , Energy.

    The goal of this journey being an understanding that flows deeply naturally Not a concept not forced or not just knowledge simple awareness of highest level of truth of who I am and after that who you are, ..god particles .
    the concept of the word highest level of Truth as a concept to me being Truth is unchanging across time and space and so far everything we see think feel do by that definition is each from the different levels of Truth depending upon our own level of development or the milestone we have reached on our journey of evolution.

    Observation and discernment are essential tools that support us on this journey ….
    At each level of Truth n understanding where it flows , there will be judgement in : thoughts ,words,actions,emotions self and others and also observation, discernment at different subtleties of levels :) and simultaneously all truths

    And we beautiful complex beings think use at all these multidimensional various levels all at once
    Where we observe with Thought, feelings , emotions we may be observing physically but there will be judgement wherever we are identifying n operating from the level of conciousness of the “who am I ” with our physical body , enviornment , emotional bodies and mental bodies and not spiritual bodies …

    Ex Observation environment/self observation
    At the physical … His hair is 4-5 inches long/
    At the emotional … I .. The emotion don’t like it
    At the mental … I … The thought think it must be difficult to maintain
    At the spiritual ….physical observation + awareness
    He isn’t He , hair isn’t hair , these are illusions of reality
    State of only Light , Love , Grace , Humility , Purity , Gratitude , Peace ,Oneness with all.

    Till we get there we are thankful and use the tools we have of observation , discernment , and enjoy this beautiful journey of growing ourselves to our true identity

    And even when on this journey every step though we may be conscious of it now in degrees truly

    We are beings of Divine Fire ,glowing fountain of light that is not quantified by human thought n feelings
    we are the purity God desires ,
    We are All GOD perfection made manifest in body, mind and soul
    We are that
    We are
    We are one with god
    We are one with all,

    Blessings n love

  9. Di says

    Elizabeth had posted a comment on neals post that is short and to the point borrowing it with liberty of my editing it adding to it, changing it :

    Everything is energy and energy is all there is made manifest in words thoughts actions physical

    .. nothing is negative/positive unless in the eye of the beholder…for all being energy, it JUST IS
    what others think is a reflection of the level they are at in their journey and each one of us has that right and is being true to ourselves to. call it as One sees it…if others don’t like your call…. That’s ok , respect their right in as much as respect yours

    We ARE sovereign BEINGS after all, authenticity is Being sovereign…if there is a trigger by what another says/does then its a mirror to you showing there is still releasing evolving maybe to be done…get to it! :)

    Love Elizabethx

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