How to respond to being called 'judgmental'

Joan Richardson

We've all heard it, right? This is the accusation slung at almost anyone in this post-modern culture who dares to look askance at problem behavior. Parents, traditional clergy and conservative politicians are frequent targets, and too often, these well-meaning people feel defenseless against this diatribe. After all, being judgmental is bad, right?  

First off, let's dismiss the myth that tolerant people don't judge. Bull. If you are human, you are judging all day, every day. We all make distinctions about comfort, convenience, humor, flavor, cost, attractiveness, appropriateness, health, ethics and yes, morals. One of the marks of humanity is the ability to make these distinctions based on higher order thinking. So, don't apologize for being judgmental. Own it. Take pride in being a thinking human.

Second, let's look closer at the person who is making the accusation. That person is simply attempting to divert attention away from his or her behavior--after all, the best defense is a good offense. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, these people want to engage in the classic Freudian defense mechanisms of displacement and projection. To avoid the social consequences of their unhealthy behaviors, they counterattack. They use displacement and projection to try to avoid shame, guilt, and anxiety. They exert social pressure on conservatives in the attempt to avoid social consequences like rejection and isolation. This tactic often works to silence the opposition.

When we understand the motivation of the defensive person, we can mobilize strategies to respond in powerful ways. At least two approaches are possible: conciliatory or confrontational. With a conciliatory response, we empathize with the defensive person and try to establish a mutually respectful relationship. We realize that people are generally reactive when they feel vulnerable and threatened. A cornered beast bares teeth and claws.  And nothing triggers a reaction like shame and guilt.

So, to diffuse this reaction, one approach is to validate the inherent worth of the person independent of his or her choices. "Hey," you say, "If I thought you were a helpless victim, I wouldn't expect more of you. But I think you are better than this. You don't have to stay stuck in this behavior."  If you want to show unconditional acceptance of the person as a human (a key to establishing an authentic relationship) you can add, "No matter your decision, I regard you with a great deal of respect because you are a fellow human being--And every human being deserves dignity." This unconditional positive regard frees the person from having to defend his or her worth and may open a path to future communication about the behavior.

If, by some miracle, a dialogue opens immediately, you can say, "It's natural to try to avoid the social consequences of our actions--we all do it to some extent. But that doesn't eliminate all consequences. Those consequences will occur whether you want them to or not. You can try to ignore the law of gravity, but you will still fall if you jump from a cliff. I am reminding you about cliffs and gravity even though you don't want to hear it. Calling me 'judgmental' does not change the cliff. It just makes it harder for me to keep warning you. If I didn't care about you, I would walk away when you attack me, and let you self-destruct. But I do care about you. I care enough to endure the reactions you are showing." Further, "Being accountable and living with consequences can be daunting. But I'm here for you. We can face those cliffs together and figure out a way to navigate them."

So much for conciliation. What if you are in an confrontational relationship and trying to score points in a debate or to deal a blow to the confidence of an aggressor? Here are some approaches.

Them: "You're being judgmental!" You: "No, you are being judgmental. You can't read my mind. You don't know my inner thoughts. You are totally judging me. You are just trying to divert attention to the fact that you feel guilty and ashamed about your behavior. This is simply a case of projection and displacement to avoid anxiety--Freud would be proud of you!"

Them: "You're being judgmental." You: "Where is it written that I can't be judgmental? You judge a thousand things a day - so do I. What's the big deal? Who said not to judge?" Them, "Uhh, it says in the Bible that you shouldn't judge." You, "The Bible? Are you invoking the Bible? I don't think you want to go there because the rest of the Bible is on my side, not yours. If you want to obey everything in the Bible, I'll accept that, but you can't cherry pick when it suits your fancy. Either you embrace it or you don't. So, which one is it, the Bible or not?"

Them, "But you are the one that is the Christian - not me. I don't have to obey the Bible, but you do!" You, "Again, I don't think you want to go there, because if I obeyed the whole Bible I would have to stone you here and now. So don't go around talking about things of which you have absolutely no context and very little knowledge."

Them: "You're being judgmental!" You: "Don't try to change the subject and avoid the real issue. The issue is that your behavior (or opinion) is unhealthy and you don't want to be accountable for your actions. Stop trying to use thug tactics to quash a logical argument. It won't work on me."

So don't be cowed by the possibility that you may, in fact, be judgmental. Just make sure your judgment is superior to that of your opposition.




We've all heard it, right? This is the accusation slung at almost anyone in this post-modern culture who dares to look askance at problem behavior. Parents, traditional clergy and conservative politicians are frequent targets, and too often, these well-meaning people feel defenseless against this diatribe. After all, being judgmental is bad, right?  

First off, let's dismiss the myth that tolerant people don't judge. Bull. If you are human, you are judging all day, every day. We all make distinctions about comfort, convenience, humor, flavor, cost, attractiveness, appropriateness, health, ethics and yes, morals. One of the marks of humanity is the ability to make these distinctions based on higher order thinking. So, don't apologize for being judgmental. Own it. Take pride in being a thinking human.

Second, let's look closer at the person who is making the accusation. That person is simply attempting to divert attention away from his or her behavior--after all, the best defense is a good offense. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, these people want to engage in the classic Freudian defense mechanisms of displacement and projection. To avoid the social consequences of their unhealthy behaviors, they counterattack. They use displacement and projection to try to avoid shame, guilt, and anxiety. They exert social pressure on conservatives in the attempt to avoid social consequences like rejection and isolation. This tactic often works to silence the opposition.

When we understand the motivation of the defensive person, we can mobilize strategies to respond in powerful ways. At least two approaches are possible: conciliatory or confrontational. With a conciliatory response, we empathize with the defensive person and try to establish a mutually respectful relationship. We realize that people are generally reactive when they feel vulnerable and threatened. A cornered beast bares teeth and claws.  And nothing triggers a reaction like shame and guilt.

So, to diffuse this reaction, one approach is to validate the inherent worth of the person independent of his or her choices. "Hey," you say, "If I thought you were a helpless victim, I wouldn't expect more of you. But I think you are better than this. You don't have to stay stuck in this behavior."  If you want to show unconditional acceptance of the person as a human (a key to establishing an authentic relationship) you can add, "No matter your decision, I regard you with a great deal of respect because you are a fellow human being--And every human being deserves dignity." This unconditional positive regard frees the person from having to defend his or her worth and may open a path to future communication about the behavior.

If, by some miracle, a dialogue opens immediately, you can say, "It's natural to try to avoid the social consequences of our actions--we all do it to some extent. But that doesn't eliminate all consequences. Those consequences will occur whether you want them to or not. You can try to ignore the law of gravity, but you will still fall if you jump from a cliff. I am reminding you about cliffs and gravity even though you don't want to hear it. Calling me 'judgmental' does not change the cliff. It just makes it harder for me to keep warning you. If I didn't care about you, I would walk away when you attack me, and let you self-destruct. But I do care about you. I care enough to endure the reactions you are showing." Further, "Being accountable and living with consequences can be daunting. But I'm here for you. We can face those cliffs together and figure out a way to navigate them."

So much for conciliation. What if you are in an confrontational relationship and trying to score points in a debate or to deal a blow to the confidence of an aggressor? Here are some approaches.

Them: "You're being judgmental!" You: "No, you are being judgmental. You can't read my mind. You don't know my inner thoughts. You are totally judging me. You are just trying to divert attention to the fact that you feel guilty and ashamed about your behavior. This is simply a case of projection and displacement to avoid anxiety--Freud would be proud of you!"

Them: "You're being judgmental." You: "Where is it written that I can't be judgmental? You judge a thousand things a day - so do I. What's the big deal? Who said not to judge?" Them, "Uhh, it says in the Bible that you shouldn't judge." You, "The Bible? Are you invoking the Bible? I don't think you want to go there because the rest of the Bible is on my side, not yours. If you want to obey everything in the Bible, I'll accept that, but you can't cherry pick when it suits your fancy. Either you embrace it or you don't. So, which one is it, the Bible or not?"

Them, "But you are the one that is the Christian - not me. I don't have to obey the Bible, but you do!" You, "Again, I don't think you want to go there, because if I obeyed the whole Bible I would have to stone you here and now. So don't go around talking about things of which you have absolutely no context and very little knowledge."

Them: "You're being judgmental!" You: "Don't try to change the subject and avoid the real issue. The issue is that your behavior (or opinion) is unhealthy and you don't want to be accountable for your actions. Stop trying to use thug tactics to quash a logical argument. It won't work on me."

So don't be cowed by the possibility that you may, in fact, be judgmental. Just make sure your judgment is superior to that of your opposition.