At a recent training, I sat at a table full of strangers. Rather quickly, we were asked to share vulnerably. One of the women at our table began, saying, “I have some thoughts, but I don't know if you're going to like them.”
Hoping to reassure her, I piped in, saying, “You can share. We're nonjudgmental.”
It's a phrase my high school students use a lot to describe the atmosphere they want to cultivate in our youth ministry, one in which people are free to share without fear of being judged, even if they're in the minority opinion.
Rather than be comforted by my well-intentioned comment, the stranger snapped back at me, “No one is nonjudgmental.”
I felt the irony of my comment. Here, I'd hoped it would put the stranger at ease and communicate how much we valued her opinion. Instead, it left me feeling judged. Immediately, I withdrew, unwilling to share, fearful that future comments would also be met with hostility.
The next day, we returned for the second part of our training. We began by developing a community agreement for how we would interact with one another during the remainder of our training.
As part of this, someone suggested adding the word “nonjudgmental” to our community agreement.
As soon as the word came out of the participant's mouth, I thought to myself, “Good luck with that.”
Sure enough, the facilitator responded by saying, “I'm not sure that's really the word we want to include.”
But then, rather than shut down the well-meaning participant, she went on to gently explain, “Everyone comes into this training with bias. Our experiences, families of origin, politics, and education all shape us and contribute to how we see the world. We can't undo all of that. What we can do is consciously commit to suspending our judgment as we listen to new ideas and allow ourselves to be shaped by them.”
That makes sense to me.
On some level, I've always known no one is nonjudgmental.
Yet, I've always appreciated the sentiment behind saying we're nonjudgmental; I've always wanted our youth ministry to be one in which people are, in fact, free to share without fear of judgment.
Now, thanks to this facilitator, I have better language to describe the environment we want to create. It's not that we want teens to be nonjudgmental. It's that, for however long we're together, we want them to suspend judgement in order to listen to and be shaped by new ideas.
The difference, I think, is subtle but significant.
Being nonjudgmental requires teens to be inherently someone they're not.
But suspending judgment allows teens to remain authentically themselves – to own everything that makes them who they are - while at the same time, remaining open to new ideas, the kind that can transform people and communities.