In my consulting work, I often get the privilege of helping leaders and teams enhance their interpersonal and collaboration practices. Recently, I was observing a team of leaders I’ve been working with for a long time, negotiate a prickly subject during one of their executive meetings.

As the conversation began to get more charged, one member addressed another, “Could you not lead your story with so much judgment? I think we are trying to work on getting the criticism out of here …”

The group laughed, nervously.

The member continued, self-deprecatingly, “I mean, I’m just trying to imperfectly apply the principles of non-judgment here…”

To this, another member chimed in, “So, you’re judging us for judging?”

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone.

It was a beautiful learning moment.

I see this all the time: in our efforts to create a less judgmental world, we often respond to others’ judgments, judgmentally. It doesn’t work.

I feel deep appreciation and empathy for what this one group member was trying to do with his opening statement. As a result of the work we had been doing together…

  • he was more aware of the habitual and culturally normative critical and judgmental discourse in the room

  • he felt uncomfortable and motivated to contribute to things going more collaboratively

  • he may have wanted more safety and understanding

  • he wanted to contribute to the group practicing the very principles they were working on intellectually


Perhaps if he allowed himself to be a little more vulnerable and transparent, it may have sounded like this: “Would you mind pausing for a second? I’m noticing myself getting tense and resistant as you are talking, and I’m wondering if you could tell me more about what is deeply important to you about not moving forward with the decision we are trying to make so that I can understand what you’re going to bat for here?”

When we put the focus on what we don’t want, we inadvertently stimulate defensiveness.

Instead, if we lead with vulnerability by revealing the impact that something is having on us and making a positive, concrete suggestion for something that might help, we are more likely to develop collaborative, high-trust relationships.

When we lead from a place of shared humanity (not referee, expert, teacher or scorekeeper), we are often able to move more efficiently and effectively in creative and collaborative directions.

Culture is created by the words we put into the spaces between us.

Leave a comment … tell me, what words are you using these days?  How are they working for you?