Observing without judgment

Jaime Yáñez
5 min readMay 3, 2022
Photo by: Jukan Tateisi.

One of the most important things I have learned as an Agile Coach is that observation is more powerful than judgment.

The always interesting Seth Godin wrote a post titled “The difference between making mistakes and learning from them.” It emphasizes that people are often afraid of “making mistakes” because of the judgments of others when that “mistake” becomes apparent.

Now take this to Agile Coaching or teams… Can you imagine a punitive look always behind you when something goes wrong? Can you imagine the “consultant” who tells you how to lead your own transformation process? And on top of that, he tells you that he follows you at your own pace when all he does is make judgments about your own journey? Well, these behaviors are more common than they seem. The power to observe without prejudice or value judgment is a unique ability that every Agile Coach must develop. It is the ability to see something and actually perceive it.

It’s like holding a mirror for someone.

When you look at someone, you are basically holding a mirror up to that person. By actually looking into that mirror, the person can see himself in a way that he may not have been able to see before or with the same clarity. Observing without judging allows the person to feel safe knowing that what he sees reflected is just that, without any comment or added value judgment. If your goal is to help someone and you do it from a place of genuine and appreciative, then allowing them to see themselves through their own eyes and reflect is powerful.

At this point, I also want to tell you that we all, at some point, have that tendency to make judgments about people and events. We may think that we are simply observing, but listening without judgment is a skill that is not as easy as it seems. It is easy to see what is wrong with something or someone, but it is not so easy to really observe without making value judgments.

When you are open to observing without judging, you can hear what others are saying without your own thoughts getting in the way. You can tell the difference between what someone is saying and how you interpret their words. When you can refrain from making judgments, your communication with others becomes more transparent and effective.

To observe without judgment means to experience something (a person, a place, or an idea) precisely as it is. The moment we attribute our own thoughts to an experience, we create a story about it, which can cause us to jump to conclusions and miss important information. For example, suppose I see my co-worker leaving every day very quickly and three hours before dismissal times. In that case, you could make judgments (Imagine your own here). But suppose you were to watch him nonjudgmentally. In that case, you might find that he leaves early to pick up his son from his chemotherapies (This is a real case where I helped a Product Owner not make judgments about a developer within a team going through this situation).

Avoid blaming other people for their behavior.

Blaming others for your behavior is a common human tendency. Still, it can cause many problems, especially in the workplace. In his book The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the Twelve Traits That Trap Us, James Flaherty suggests an alternative: “The coach’s job is to keep the focus on describing and observing the client’s behavior and its effects, rather than making value judgments.” or attribute the cause.

When it comes to someone behaving in a way that has negative consequences, simply pointing out their mistakes or calling attention to their poor decisions will likely only make them more entrenched. He will feel defensive and won’t be open to what you have to say. Instead, he considers using “clean language” (a term coined by psychiatrist David Grove) that might open up room for improvement. Here’s an excellent example of clean language from The Coach’s Casebook:

Instead of saying, “You keep interrupting me,” try saying, “While we’re talking, you’re interrupting me.”

When you communicate with those around you, it is essential to be clear and direct. But there are ways to do it without blaming anyone or making value judgments. If you are accusatory or judgmental, you are closing the possibility of the other person hearing you fully. “You” statements can easily be misconstrued as blaming someone for a particular action; You don’t want your recipient to start focusing on defending themselves instead of listening to what you have to say. When we speak about our own observations and feelings, we are more likely to open up a dialogue and invite a genuine exchange of information.

Help people internalize the lessons and make better decisions in the future.

Instead of trying to figure out how to get people to change their behavior (which is why I’m a firm believer that change “management” doesn’t exist, it’s “accompanying” change that exists), we can all strengthen our resolution skills of problems through a process called “observation learning.” By asking people questions that encourage self-reflection and adaptation, they can be inspired to make changes for themselves.

The idea is simple: when people are encouraged to observe themselves and the situation around them, they internalize the lesson and make better decisions in the future of their own volition. So when you ask your team about their goals or what makes them happy in life, you’re helping them clarify what’s important to them. Then, by encouraging them to look at how their current behavior aligns with those values, you help them realize where they need to improve and, ideally, inspire them to take action (Again, change is not managed, it is accompanied).

Observation without prejudice is a powerful tool for you as an Agile Coach

The beauty of observation is that it is objective. You are not clouding your view with your own personal biases or filtering the data in front of you to give you a stronger narrative. You just take exactly what you see and let reality speak for itself. Suppose you want to understand what is happening with the people on your team. In that case, you have to put aside your prejudices and preferences and simply observe them as they are. Human nature leads us to make value judgments about everything we see. We like some things and dislike others, we think this is good, and that is bad, etc. But as agile professionals, we’ve learned the importance of removing those value judgments. After all, if your goal is to accompany a team to be better every day, why hinder it with a bunch of preconceived notions or your ego?