We Know Not What We Do

We Know Not What We Do


I love to see folks interacting compassionately with each other. Eschewing judgement. Looking for what’s alive in one another. Helping each other grow in spirit. It would be fair to describe that as something I need.

Most times when I’m with an established group of people however, I find that need not getting met. Most times, I feel sad at the subtle, unwitting violence implicit in folks’ interactions. Violence in terms of judgmentalism, not least.

Over the past two or three years I’ve been working on weaning myself off judgmentalism. I sense I have a long way to go still, but in my journey I note four stages I have passed through so far:


A blindness to the world of judgement in which we all live. An absence of awareness of the effects it’s having on our relationships and social cohesion. And an unwitting participation in continually passing moralistic judgments on just about anyone and everyone we encounter.


When awareness dawns, it can kindle a burning desire to do something about it. When I was in this stage I continually beat myself up (judged myself a failing person) for my lack of non-judgmentalism and my inability to produce non-judgmental thoughts and actions. This stage often also brings a burning passion to proselytise e.g. non-violence, and convert others to the non-judgmental path.


After a time, the flame dies, to be replaced with an an airy nonchalance. With sangfroid. With equanimity. But I found this stage a little forced. a little delusional. Yes, I was acutely aware of the times I was making moralistic judgements. And yes, I could interrupt that line of thought and not act on the judgment – by saying or doing something, for example. Yet my judgments of people still bothered me. Still triggered negative thoughts. Still caused me angst. And maybe folks sensed that, even as I tried to suppress it.


I guess I’m just turning the corner into this stage. Here I find I’m easier with others and their way of being. I find it much easier to just be present and list without judgement. I still find myself conscious of the judgments my mind is still making, but the resulting angst is lessening. I’m bothered less, about what people do and how they are. And interrupted responses are fewer, and weaker.

I suspect there are more stages yet to come (wry smile).


For all my progress, or maybe because of it, I find myself ill at ease in group situations where the dynamics and customs of the group reflect the “water” stage. It makes me feel uneasy to see folks doing casual violence to each other, and unwittingly alienating each other, often contrary to their declared purpose for being a group in the first place.

For example, I was a guest of a warmly welcoming local Toastmasters group last night. The stated aims of the group are to help people with public speaking in a safe and friendly environment. And yet the Toastmasters “rituals” – at least as interpreted by this group, and seen through the lens of nonviolence – seem to me to undermine those aims. Specifically:

  • Judgment
  • Competition
  • Constructive criticism
  • Advice
  • Etc.

Are there ways of being as a group that could avoid these undermining behaviours? That could bring more joy to folks’ interactions and building of relationships? I believe so. Maybe the rituals have to change. Or maybe just their interpretation. I would love to see some nonviolence principles come into play (sic):

  • Nonviolent feedback rather than judgment
  • Playing together rather than competing with each other
  • Sharing needs (met or not met) rather than providing “evaluations”
  • Empathy rather than advice
  • Etc.

I guess this would help get my needs met more effectively. And the needs of the folks in the group, too, perhaps.

How do you feel about the dynamics of the groups of which you choose to be a part? Could you imagine more joy, more joyful interactions, deeper and more human relationships? Would you be willing to consider what you could do, both yourself and in concert, to help that happen?

– Bob


  1. “How do you feel about the dynamics of the groups of which you choose to be a part?”

    At work, I see, and am sometimes an active participant in, the same sad group behaviors as you’ve seen. I used to feel really bad about it, but then I learned something that lessened the pain: The “system” catalyzes those dysfunctional behaviors via the institution of annual performance reviews, constraining approval processes, and hierarchical class structures. Someone (Drucker? Deming?) once said something akin to “95% of behavior is dictated by the system”. I believe him.

    • Paul Beckford said:

      This chimes with me too… I find that the typical work environment tends to bring out the worst in people. A quality that I admire in others is humility… especially amongst programmers. Yet the “system” demands that programmers display a “can do” attitude 🙂 Maintaining the pretence that they have all the answers, and can pull solutions out the bag on demand 🙂

      This doesn’t leave much space for saying “I don’t know”

      What we do is immensely difficult, and I find that acknowledging what it is that I don’t know is a great aid. Yet I have felt judged in the past as a consequence. So like most, my reaction has been to assert what ever it is I feel I do know… which isn’t very humble 🙂

      It is really difficult to be the person you would like to be. I find it a constant struggle to keep the worst of me at bay. The best remedies I’ve found is meditation (engaging with myself at a deep level); keeping my elbows in at work (being selective over with whom, how, and when I engage); and finding like minds outside work.

      Engaging with like minded individuals is really important to me… It serves to bolster my faith in mankind. Proof that things don’t have to be “a certain way”, and as humans we can do better.

  2. daveatigence said:


    Thanks for this article. I have only just (re)read your posting on non-violent feedback, so I doubt that this will contain many (any?) of the elements.

    I like this article, but not sure why. I certainly like the basic premise of being non-judgemental and I am very sad to say I indulge in, and have had perpetrated against, me the same low-level violence. I will read and re-read this until something breaks through.

    I have a thought also (and I’m sure you intended this) that these stages don’t just apply to violent judgmentalism. Gaining new understanding of anything alien to our current mind-map of the world probably goes through the same stages. Perhaps this is why I find the article particularly intriguing? Perhaps it is because it expresses our stages of knowledge acquisition in a slightly different way?

    BTW, looking forward to the edit that gives us your name for the next stage. Moon Rock perhaps? Like bedrock, but harder to find and yet visible to all 🙂

  3. rutty said:

    Great post. This does reinforce some of the good learning I did through the Open University during my systems thinking modules. One of the modules singled out blame as a powerful disincentive to progress.

    I’m lucky to work on a project where it is possible to make mistakes and not be burned at the stake as a result, but blame is always around as people can’t really help being judgemental. I do try and not be like that, but fail miserably on occasion.

  4. Its a nice balancing act to convey a point across in a heated debate and at same time be mild, non-violent, not suggest other implicit meanings which may be construed as being judgmental. This comes with a level of maturity and experience in handling these conversations.

    Its an intrinsic change within oneself, to calm down, remain unperturbed by other’s judgments, thoughts. Sounds like one of basic tenets of Zen or yoga.

    Not being judgmental about our scientific progress, wonder why one’s feelings or state of mind are not topics being researched or given due importance in scheme of things that are vitally important than all the systems being designed. Its sad that subject relating to emotions are not mainstream, partly because they cannot be measured, hence left out of scientific discourse.

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