A critical concept to compassionate communication is distinguishing observations from evaluations and maintaining a clear separation between the two. In this post, I’ll outline the difference between observations and evaluations; why it’s important to separate them; and a suggestion for how to incorporate this into your daily life.
Approx. reading time: 9 mins
The difference between the two
Observations are concrete facts as processed by our senses. Evaluations are an assessment or judgement we place on something based on our own ideas, values and experiences. Often, we combine mistake our evaluations for an observation, when in fact it is actually a mixing of the two.
For example, let’s say you come home from work and your husband is lying on the couch, empty plate of food nearby, watching Netflix in his underwear. You might be inclined to say or think something along the lines of: “You are so lazy.” Given the context, you might think this is an observation, but really, it’s an evaluation based on some observations, since you’re making a judgement of your husband and putting the label of “lazy” on him.
That’s an easy one, so let’s take a more subtle example. Say you see someone looking like the girl in the image above on your commute to work. You might say “I see a woman in a hurry”. That’s an observation, right? Nope. Being in a hurry is a kind of emotional state, and you’re making that evaluation based on her facial expression, body movements and panting, presumably.
This predisposition for evaluating definitely has its uses. From an evolutionary perspective it allowed us to make quick decisions with minimal inputs. “That tiger looks like it’s about to attack – let’s get out of here!” is an example. Evaluating is similar to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1, “the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach.” System 2, on the other hand, is “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates.”
The harmful hyperbole
Additionally, there are some words that when used as exaggerations instigate defensiveness rather than the compassion we desire, mixing observation and evaluation.
Words like always, never, whenever, frequently, seldom and ever all do this. Unless of course, you take responsibility for the word.
- You never call me. (Observation with evaluation mixed in.)
- I cannot recall the last time you called me. (Observation only, taking responsibility.)
Why we want to distinguish them
Considering the scenario, you might think: “So what? My evaluation is accurate.” While that might very well be the case, at least in your opinion, think about your objective in communicating. Is your primary goal to be right, or is it to form successful, compassionate and loving relationships? If your primary goal is to be right, then you’re probably not going to enjoy the content of this article.
When we communicate our evaluations to another person, they are more likely to hear criticism, become defensive and resist whatever it is we are saying. Making evaluations (particularly relating to people) limits their potential and projects a static state on them. Saying your husband is “lazy” makes it difficult for him to become “active”.
Further, often when we make our evaluations, we are vague. In the example above, through the context I’ve made it clear what is forming the label of “lazy”, but what about the perspective of the husband? Maybe he thinks you’re referring to the trash cans he hasn’t taken out? Or that the dishes haven’t been done? When we don’t communicate the observations influencing our evaluations this leads to vagueness which makes it hard for the other person to connect with us and see how they can improve our lives. The evaluation itself puts the other person on the defensive since you’re making a character assessment of them.
I don’t know about you, but whenever someone makes a negative assessment of me, one of the thoughts that crosses my mind is “Who are you to say that about me?”.
For a lot of us, it is difficult to make observations free of judgement, criticism or other forms of analysis. I became aware of the pernicious effect of thinking and communicating in evaluations with my brother.
There was a period of about six months at the beginning of 2015 where I was working full-time (about 50 hours per week) as an engineer. I started at 8am, finished at 6pm, then did a few hours of Krav Maga before making the 1.5 hour commute back home. Arriving home somewhere between 9 and 10pm, I’d open the door and often be greeted with the image of my brother sitting in front of the computer on Facebook or some other web-surfing activity.
Thoughts like “Why is he wasting his time?”, “Man, he’s so lazy.” and “Where’s his motivation to achieve anything?” crossed my mind. I never communicated these thoughts verbally, but boy did I express them unconsciously through my body-language and attitude. The result? I’d go to bed upset and a little angry, and my brother seemed annoyed with me for the way I was treating him.
If I’d given myself a bit of empathy, I probably would have found my anger, annoyance and frustration was motivated by a desire for relaxation and rest. I thought that my current living situation didn’t afford me the levels that I needed. These emotions I took out on my brother. Nothing good came of it.
I’m sure if I’d expressed those thoughts explicitly and verbally to him, much of the same would have resulted. The experience showed me how useless and counterproductive evaluations of other people often are, and, that these judgements don’t have to be verbally expressed for the other person to hear them. That’s part of the empathy we all have, being able to sense the emotional states of others.
What this story also shows (in addition to me definitely not being perfect at this compassionate communication), is that it’s not easy to teach an old dog new tricks and separate observation from evaluation.
We’re talking about all evaluations, not just negative ones
At present, we have implicitly been focusing on negative evaluations and labels. While I consider these to be the most violent evaluations (an evaluation in itself), neutral and positive evaluations are also violent in that they impose something on someone else. To say “Billy is a good student” might make him feel satisfied for meeting your standards, but what does it mean? Maybe you make the comment because you received an answer in a homework assignment which you thought was quite inspired and creative. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to Billy if that’s what you told him, rather than “You’re a good student.” Unfortunately, these evaluations are the way we’ve been brought up to express ourselves, and somewhat frustratingly, they are often simpler than expressing our observation.
Compare the two.
- You’re a good student.
- I felt really pleased reading your answer to question 4 of the homework assignment because I thought it was quite inspired and creative. It’s important to me that you have an environment to express yourself here in school.
4 words versus 38 words. Almost ten times longer to say the second piece. One is an evaluation which serves no purpose other than to express that the listener has met some standard of yours. The other expresses the speaker’s true feelings and observation, giving the listener concrete and useful feedback, while also fostering a stronger relationship between the two.
To make statements like the second one requires practice, patience and commitment to communicating compassionately. Unfortunately, in a world where our attention spans seem to be growing shorter, this is a challenge.
Heck, even as I write this article, I’m thinking about how long it is. We’re at about 1,000 words now, and I acknowledge that some of you haven’t even made it this far. I wrote an article the other day which clocked in at 1,100 words and some feedback I got was that it was “too long”. The average reading speed is about 200 wpm, so 1,100 words will take about five minutes to read. Surely five minutes is not too much time from our day?
(I’m also open to the idea that the article was rubbish, and indeed five minutes was too long for it.)
The importance is in the relationships
Yes, separating observation from evaluation does require more work, but it pays off in the bonds you strengthen with the other party.
I’m also not saying that we distance ourselves completely from evaluations. What I am saying is that we learn to use the two intentionally and separately, taking responsibility for our evaluations.
Instead of: “Boy, you’re such a grub!”
Try: “When I saw you spill food on your shirt, I thought you were being a bit grubby and perhaps I’d need to buy you a bib.”
Neither of those statements are perfect, and both could go a long way to being more compassionate. The key point here is separating the two. If you’re going to make an evaluation, give a reason for it, then relate it to some future behaviour – i.e. why it’s important for you to make an evaluation.
Or just go with the rule I try to live by:
Reserve evaluations and judgements for everything which doesn’t have a conscience.
Once we begin to remove evaluations of others from our operating system, we can see details and features in others which we previously missed. As the late great baseball catcher Yogi Berra once said:
You can observe a lot just by watching.
– Yogi Berra
“How can I change my evaluative habits?”
We can change these judgemental, critical habits through practice. When practicing, it’s important that we’re also not hard on ourselves for not being perfect. Don’t beat yourself up if you say something to a coworker which is an evaluation when you’re trying to reduce it.
Here’s an exercise you can practice.
The next time you’re in a public place with five minutes up your sleeve, have a look at the people around you. Pick one person as a start. What thoughts immediately arise about them? If you can, write these down. Now ask yourself a few questions.
- Are these thoughts evaluations or observations?
- If they’re evaluations, what are you observing which causes this evaluation?
- Can you think of other evaluations which could be made of the same observation?
- How do you think your current emotional state is influencing your observations/evaluations?
In these situations, you can think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes, ferretting out the details of a particular scene to make sense of it.
Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Or, as you may find, there’s no concrete impression you can discern from a given situation. What you observe however, may be influencing how you’re feeling, but ultimately, you’re responsible for your own emotions.
Photo is of a display at Sydney’s 2016 Vivid light festival. The figure in the photo is my friend, Nidin.