Can we ever be fully free of judgment?

We know that forum works best when it is a judgment-free zone.  We speak from experience; we don’t tell others what to do.

But some situations are much harder than others.  Consider the case of two forum mates, “John” and “Mary”:

John, in full candor, shares something that he has done or some decision or choice he has made.

Mary feels strongly that what John did is wrong, bad, immoral, or unethical.

Even if Mary does not share her feelings out loud, is she still judging John negatively, and does Mary need to clear the air with John?

Or is Mary clean with John as long as she doesn’t verbalize her negative judgment of John?

I believe the answer to this case can be found in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, the foundational text on judgment-free living and clearing the air.  Rosenberg makes the compelling case that, “when you’re busy judging people, you have no time to love them.”  In that spirit, Mary needs to clear the air with herself, not with John.  In that process, perhaps she can come to feel not “I judge John negatively because of what he did,” but instead, “I wouldn’t have done what John did, but I will not judge him.”  This can be our guiding mantra in forum (and in life), even if, as flawed human beings, it will be an ongoing struggle to be judgment-free.

Mary (and all of us) might further reflect:

  • Have I truly tried to understand what John did? Under what conditions would I do have done what he did? What would have to happen in my life to do exactly what he did?
  • If I see something in John that I don’t like, is this in any way an aspect of something I don’t like in myself?

A further complicating dimension: What if, in Mary’s view, what John did was not only wrong, but illegal?

While it’s simpler to paint the world in black and white, illegal acts can range across a spectrum from running a traffic light to petty shoplifting to embezzlement to first degree murder.  In general, our role in forum is to be an active listener, to ask thought provoking questions, and to share our experiences.  We are not to act as prosecutor, judge and jury.

However, I make one exception to this philosophy: If John has physically harmed another, or announces his intention to physically harm another (or himself), Mary (and others in the forum) are obligated to do something.  That means, depending on the situation, helping John get the professional mental health support he needs, and/or bringing the issue to the attention of appropriate public safety authorities.

Has your forum ever confronted situations like this?  How have you dealt with them? And how can we enhance our forum experiences by sharing best practices in these most complicated cases?  Please share your thoughts.

Would you steal your forum mate’s computer or car?

Of course not. We all learn from an early age to respect the property of others so taking without permission is simply unacceptable.  But far too often and without thinking, we steal something even more precious from our forum mates – their time.  When you arrive 10 minutes late for a forum meeting and six other members must wait to begin, you have stolen collectively an hour of their time.

Tardiness is a chronic problem among busy executives, but time is money, and there is no better example of that than your forum mates wasting time around a table, their combined compensation ticking away at thousands of dollars per hour. And chronic tardiness, no matter how innocent, can gum up the gears of a forum’s ethic, build resentment and anger, and make forum members less willing to share and be vulnerable because of that tardiness-induced stress.

Here’s one simple way to be on time:

  • Block plenty of time on your personal calendar to arrive early, even assuming traffic delays or other unforeseen circumstances.
  • If you are early, simply wait outside in the lobby or in your car, checking email, making phone calls, or reading the article you’ve been saving but never get to.

Your fellow forum members will appreciate the courtesy and respect you are showing for them, and this will build everyone’s commitment to not steal our forum mates’ most valuable possession, their time.

Should our forum add new members?

The “sweet spot” for forum size is 8-10 – large enough to have critical mass and diversity of perspectives; small enough to be manageable when scheduling meetings and sharing air time.

So when should a forum consider adding members?

Tilt towards not adding if the following is generally true:

  • Attendance is solid, almost always 7 or 8.
  • Members are comfortable with the group dynamics, chemistry, balance between peer quality and diversity.

Tilt towards adding members if:

  • One or more members are likely to leave in the next year, for any reason: relocation, dissatisfaction, or lack of alignment with other members’ goals for forum.
  • Your numbers are on the low side (7 or 8), and new members could provide an infusion of new energy, different styles, and a wider range of experience to share.

It’s essential to plan ahead.  Remember that adding members can take several months between identifying candidates, vetting them, and integrating them into the forum.

On the virtues of joining a “younger” forum

A potential forum member recently expressed concern about being placed in a forum where most of the members were considerably younger than him. Being of a “certain age” myself, my response was as follows:

  • Most of my friends and many business associates are around the same age as me. Forum is one place where I can broaden my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.
  • Personally, I’m actively seeking to develop deeper relations with younger people. With all due respect to my peers, those who are 20+ years younger have an energy and entrepreneurial spirit that inspires and motivates me.
  • Just as I’ve reached the age where I prefer to select a dentist or accountant who is not going to leave the scene before me, I also seek friends and forum mates who are more likely to be with me into old age. (I suppose that may sound selfish, but I need to look out for myself, while also serving others.)
  • My contemporaries can tell me about their experience as parents of teen or adult children, or as children of aging parents. It’s a whole new perspective to hear instead from forum members one generation removed, who are themselves the same age as my kids or who are observing the aging of their own parents.

I’ve benefited from being in forum with younger members, and I encourage others also to be open to the possibilities.

The value of forum explained in two cartoons

Andrew Miller, a member of a Harvard Business School Alumni Forum in Toronto, shares two cartoons and his interpretation of how they explain the benefits of forum.

In the first Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, an artist’s vision is obstructed and distorted by a fly on his glasses.  The forum reading: My peer support group helps me identify underlying assumptions, beliefs, and biases that color my vision and distort my perception of reality.  The forum doesn’t help so much with the technical, fine details of how I do my work or live my life; it doesn’t tell me how to use paint or a brush to create my masterpiece, but at a deeper level, the forum helps open my eyes to new perspectives and possibilities and brings greater clarity to my thinking.

In Gary Larson’s second cartoon, an airline pilot is surprised to see a goat way up high in a cloud bank.  The forum view: Sometimes I get so wrapped up in an issue that I lose perspective – it becomes overwhelming with emotions and information and ideas whirling around.   It’s easy in a busy life to get spun around and lose sense of direction.  Forum helps me get my bearings – gets my head up and over the clouds to see things more clearly.   Forum helps me see my path and chart my course with greater clarity.   Forum discussions help me from crashing and burning.

Confirming and Committing to Your Forum’s Operating Principles

Most forums have a constitution or set of norms that includes principles the forum intends to follow.  Sample guidelines include:

  • I will respect confidentiality.
  • I will be present in the moment.
  • I will stay around when times get tough.
  • I will speak my truth.
  • I will not blame, shame, or fix others.

To confirm your forum’s principles, and to help everyone commit to them, consider taking up each of your principles (perhaps one per meeting), and asking:

  1. Personal interpretation: What does the operating principle mean to you and what, if anything, do you want to improve on with regard to practicing the principle?  (Each person up to 1 minute)
  2. Sharing of best practices: How have you overcome challenges in practicing the operating principle or coached others to do so?  (volunteers)
  3. Compliance to date: Are there any red flags that you think need to be addressed now regarding our forum’s compliance with the operating principle? (volunteers)

These conversations can help your forum truly make your principles more than just boilerplate text, and can improve your forum’s effectiveness in practicing the principles.

What I’m most ashamed about myself

A Forum member told me that he tried a different presentation approach at a recent meeting:  He simply discussed “the five things I’m most ashamed of about myself.”   He reported that it was quite difficult, but the other members quickly dove in with their own issues, and it helped bring the forum closer together.

Obviously it takes a while to build enough trust to do this kind of presentation, but the member found it quite helpful.

Are you and your forum ready to tackle this presentation topic?

Bob Halperin