Which thought process of the character Nancy (in the scenario below) do you identify with when it comes to a conversation – especially one where you are pressed for time?

Which direction does your mind naturally go toward in tense conversations?

Nancy, the west region’s manager, looked up from her computer in her office to see Barbara, one of her direct reports, walking in while her face was immersed in papers. Nancy could only see Barbara’s perplexed brows above the mess of reports that she was scrutinizing. “What’s up, Barbara?” Nancy warmly greeted her, even though she knew she had but about six minutes before she needed to be leaving the office for an appointment.

“Well, these quarterly reports aren’t calculated correctly. It shows my client-satisfaction ratings are significantly off the mark of where I think they should be,” Barbara responded with concern and a bit of defensiveness in her voice.

Now on the inside of Nancy’s calm exterior, she was quickly battling two very different lines of thought.

Her old, well-established line of thinking sounded like, “Well maybe if you weren’t so snippy and know-it-all with your clients, your satisfaction ratings would be higher! Face the music.

“I’ve gotta get heading out the door and I really don’t have the time or the desire to hear you whimper about your sliding performance indicated in the reports. I highly doubt any kind of computer glitch caused your decline in client satisfaction. I am going to have to put you on the remedial training track; I can see that right now.” And so the story goes; Nancy’s habitual, “Ladder of Inference”-climbing thought process had run up the rungs of judgment pretty quickly!

But fortunately for Nancy and Barbara’s working relationship, and Nancy’s developing leadership abilities, she hastened to heed her knowledge and desire to implement suspending her judgments by staying low on the rungs of the Ladder of Inference.

She paused and kept her mouth shut while her mind furtively stopped to view the scenario like a video camera would. She took in as much factual, real data as she could.

This time, when she paused to suspend her judgments, the thought process in her mind sounded much different.

“The real data includes that we did switch over the outsourcing of internal reports like these last month. And Barbara wouldn’t know that.

“My real experience indicates that reports like this could have errors in them due to the human factor involved. It also reveals that Barbara is typically highly concerned about her performance; her self-confidence seems to waver and what she thinks others think of her is important to her. And it reveals that in five minutes I really need to be walking out the door.”

Nancy’s mind knew it was natural for her to select certain data and experiences to focus on and begin to quickly affix some meaning and form some assumptions. She had been leading organizations and living life with her habitual, process of making assumptions and judgments in most conversations due to the need for speed in decision making and much to do.

However, Nancy’s recent one-on-one leadership development coaching about the value of suspending judgments had hit her between the eyes. If she wasn’t careful, she knew that like an addiction, she would be forming her conclusions, developing her beliefs, and then taking action in this situation with Barbara all within a few heartbeats.

So INSTEAD, what graciously flowed out of Nancy’s mouth was quite a turn-around from what would have escaped a few months ago.

“Barbara, I can sense your frustration with this report and what the stats seem to be telling you. Let’s look into this after this appointment I need to be heading out the door for in a few moments. I don’t have the time right now that you deserve to make sure that we have all of the correct information.

“So let’s not make conclusions about the reports. I will do some fact-finding when I get back. Then we can meet at about four p.m. today to discuss what the reports could be indicating. I know you are very conscientious about your work.”

Whew! Nancy had made significant improvements in her art of relationships, leadership, and suspending her judgments in real-work conversations. She handled the situation in a respectful, honoring manner. Who knows? The quarterly report may be dead-on; maybe Barbara really does need some additional training and development. Or, the report could be incorrect after all; maybe Barbara needs some affirmation and encouragement. Either way, Nancy was becoming a more effective leader through consciously implementing and practicing the discipline of suspending her judgments.

Some questions to ponder as you journey toward becoming a more effective communicator and leader:

  • Is there a recent time you can reflect on where you now see that perhaps you allowed your mind to make judgments and assumptions…and then began to communicate as if your judgments were factual?
  • What might occur if you pause in a conversation that involves some tension (even if it creates a second or two of silence!) and mentally try to view the situation from the lens of a video camera?
  • On a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale, how would you rate your desire to become a more effective communicator or leader?
  • On a 1 (low) to 5 (high) scale, how would you rate your willingness to self-examine your communication habits?

Look for more about learning how to suspend our judgments in my upcoming blog post on the Ladder of Inference!

By Dr. Heidi Scott – Leadership and Organizational Development Specialist