Estes Valley Library

Photo courtesy Estes Valley Library

In "We Need To Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter," author and radio host, Celeste Headlee, recalls launching her show at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Some local listeners were upset and even angry: her radio show replaced their favorite music program! One guy regularly posted angry tweets about her and her program. What did she do? She asked him to lunch. Nervous about a full-blown confrontation, she stuck to asking simple, open, and kind questions. Not only was it a lovely lunch, but she gained insights into who he was and what prompted his anger. My guess: he also learned things he didn't expect. A beautiful example of how non-judgment can change potentially difficult conversations into new connections and understanding.

Unfortunately, being heard non-judgmentally is all too rare. More often, we hear or sense judgment from others. Think of a recent time when you experienced judgment. How did it feel? When asked that question recently, these words came to mind: confining, limiting, unloving, hurtful, ignorant. Being judged can feel frustrating, sometimes hurtful, as if you're boxed in by the other person's judgment, defined by a small part of a much bigger context. My guess: the experience didn't change you for the better. Likely, the exchange didn't improve the other person either. Perhaps, they felt limited, even hurt by their own judgment.

So why do we judge? We're motivated to make things better, to fix problems, to correct what we see as erroneous behavior. We may even want the satisfaction (albeit temporary) of seizing the upper hand. But in the end, judgment doesn't achieve this. Judgment leaves everyone demoralized, deflated and with no vision or hope for how things can be different.

The more positive question: have you experienced a non-judgmental encounter? That is, being deeply heard and accepted, no matter what you revealed about yourself. What was it like? Freeing, loving, growing, affirming, hopeful? I encountered this when I started visiting a Denver-area spiritual director seven years ago. I felt anxious at first about sharing too much. I was struggling in many parts of my life. I feared being judged a failure. Instead, I encountered thoughtful, nonjudgmental questions and the open, accepting space to truly express thoughts and feelings. Through the amazing gift of non-judgment, I found the root of what was happening, seeing life with new clarity. I broke unhealthy patterns. A slow task, but a life-giving one. Rewarding enough that I braved I-25 madness for over 5 years.

Both the Estes Valley Library and Restorative Justice offer non-judgmental spaces in which to grow. Everyone entering the library is welcome, regardless of background, race, age, gender, politics, or opinions. This is written into the library's core values. Meanwhile, my liaison work with Restorative Justice has deepened my appreciation for the beautiful, redemptive work they do in our community, rooted in the non-judgmental values I've described above.

How can we create non-judgmental spaces in our encounters with others? To start, try open-ended questions:

Could you tell me more?

What was it like for you to experience that?

What emotions are you experiencing right now?

What is your deepest desire in this situation?

How would you like things to be different?

What would you like me to know?

What is the most important thing to you?

Then restate what you've heard to show you've been truly listening. Chances are you'll have a more meaningful, illuminating conversation. I don't always take time for these questions; too often, I default to reacting. But in a recent conversation, I took time to pose these questions. At the conclusion, this person complimented how I'd helped provide clarity. I was surprised! I'd simply listened, restated what I heard, asking open, non-judgmental questions. Insights emerged, and I was unburdened of any need to point out shortcomings or fix things.

Each day, we're faced with situations that shame or anger us. Instead of suppressing these uncomfortable feelings or lashing out, we can first give to ourselves the gift of non-judgment, asking those simple, powerful questions. Then we can think about the other person. What might really be going on beneath the surface? What's prompting their actions or words?

If we set out trying to convince someone they're wrong, or to alter their personal values, the outcomes of conversations will likely remain limited. But, if our goal is understanding, growth, and connection, non-judgment can breathe new life into our conversations, empowering us, and transforming our community.

Interested in practicing the skills mentioned above? Join one of the four upcoming Living Room Conversations being hosted locally as part of Conflict Resolution Month. Learn more and sign up at

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