I don't judge. No, really.
March 27, 2013 1:37 PM   Subscribe

At work I frequently come into contact with people who are members of various at-risk populations. They often have to give me really intimate details of their lives within minutes of meeting. When first opening up to me, they'll usually pause to gauge my reaction. I respond with, "I don't judge," in my most supportive voice. But I realize this can be a loaded statement for people and easily taken the wrong way. What short declarative statement could I use in its place?
posted by 1066 to Human Relations (49 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Do you need to say anything at all? I would just encourage them to continue with something like "okay" "mmhmm" "and then what?" in a non-judgmental tone of voice.

(I agree with you that "I don't judge" could easily be read as insincere/negative)
posted by randomnity at 1:38 PM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

"I'm here to listen. Please go on."
posted by Knappster at 1:40 PM on March 27, 2013 [51 favorites]

If they're young and seem a little "hipstery," maybe "It's all good"?

"I'm here to listen" or "I'm here to help" may be best, though, agreed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:43 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Honestly, "You don't need to be uncomfortable. I need to gather details for X, not to judge you" is a wonderful message. It's direct and respects the process and the people involved.
posted by xingcat at 1:47 PM on March 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

Can you say something like "My job is to help you, not to pass judgement?"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:47 PM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

If I were telling you something intensely personal and probably unpleasant and you responded that you didn't judge, I'd be shocked because the last thing I would be thinking was that you were judging me. But then you'd plant that seed that maybe some people in your line of work did actually judge me.

So I'd instead say something like you're there to help. Remind them of that.
posted by kinetic at 1:52 PM on March 27, 2013 [17 favorites]

"Don't worry, I've heard it all."?
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:52 PM on March 27, 2013 [18 favorites]

"Go on" and "tell me about that".

I think you're right not even to introduce the concept of "judgment" into the conversation, since even bringing it up as "I am not going to judge you" calls up the specter of "many people would judge you for [X]".

Although it may not apply for you, I once had a friend share some news that surprised me, news that some people might have actually been kind of judge-y about. I was surprised and unsure of how to react, because although the news itself wasn't something that shocked me, I knew that it would almost certainly shock some people in our mutual social circle. So I was kind of flailing, looking for something that would convey "good for you, I support you, don't mistake my surprise for disapproval" and my friend - who had obviously been through this before - suggested that "how's that going?" in a friendly tone was usually a good response.
posted by Frowner at 1:53 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

"I understand that this is sensitive information. However, I'm here to help you, so please try to be comfortable. These details are crucial to our work together."
posted by blurker at 1:54 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Asking a follow up question that pertains to whatever they just said (before pausing) in a relaxed manner would demonstrate non-judgement as well as show that you are listening.
posted by marimeko at 1:55 PM on March 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

"I'm here to listen and try to help, not to judge."
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:57 PM on March 27, 2013

"I don't judge" comes across to me as "The thing you did was wrong or stupid but I'm going to disregard it."
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:58 PM on March 27, 2013 [27 favorites]

I suggest you not use the word judge, because that might imply that they've described something most people would judge. I might take one of a couple approaches, depending on the person.

Express gratitude for their openness: "I know that we're covering some very personal territory here, and I appreciate that you're willing to share with me," or just, "Thank you for sharing that with me."

Normalize what they're talking about: "Many of my clients describe experiences similar to that," or, "Experimenting with XYZ is common for teens and young adults," or just, "I hear that a lot."
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:59 PM on March 27, 2013 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, I feel like body language and tone matter more here than what you say. I am a rather straight-looking lesbian, so I regularly "surprise" people when mentioning my girlfriend (either because I am intentionally outing myself, or just through conversational accident)... it doesn't really matter what people SAY to me when this happens, because I'm super used to this routine, and I'm watching for the suddenly uncomfortable body language, or the "um" before whatever it is they do say. I think the people you're talking to are probably not new to these revelations either, and they will pick up on how you FEEL no matter what you say.
posted by snorkmaiden at 2:01 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's okay, I have HBO, you won't shock me.

Delivered as a light-hearted, ice-breaker joke.
posted by myselfasme at 2:05 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Yeah, sure" +/- "What else?"

I agree that it is a can of worms that should be left alone. Even "OK" is too neutral. Act like whatever they're saying is the most normal thing in the world.

A lot of people respond badly to any displays of affection or empathy about their situation. If you care, do a good job of helping them rather than say you care.

At the end of the day, your actions will be the metric of your intentions.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:06 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

But I realize this can be a loaded statement for people and easily taken the wrong way.

Ask yourself this: "Has someone taken it the wrong way?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:07 PM on March 27, 2013

"Don't worry, I've heard it all."?

For what it's worth, in the cases where I've told people things that I worried might lead them to judge me, their replying with a variant of this is usually what comforted me the most.
posted by invitapriore at 2:08 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have similar interactions at my job, mostly involving drug use while pregnant, and I find that the sentiment of "there but for the grace of God go I"[1] is well-received--because, well, it's true, especially if you believe the "grace of God" part is basically shorthand for things like being born into a family with an advantaged socioeconomic status, having robust mental health, intact support systems, appropriate guidance to make good choices, and a decent bit of plain old good luck.

All it takes to go from someone who gives help to someone who needs help is to have drawn the short "grace of God" straw.

[1] You don't necessarily need to use the exact phrase--in fact, I don't, because I'm not a believer in God and I feel disingenuous saying it. But communicating the basic idea behind the phrase--that these issues could have just as easily happened to me, too, were it not for a few relatively tenuous variables--often results in people looking visibly relieved and much more eager to continue the conversations.
posted by jesourie at 2:09 PM on March 27, 2013

I agree with some variant of "it's ok, I've heard it all" is the most reassuring. It instantly reminds the person that they are not alone and what they are saying is not shocking you.
posted by Eicats at 2:16 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I gotta say that I don't like the variation, "I've heard it all." Again, I'm (perhaps wrongly) assuming that someone is telling you something highly personal and probably uncomfortable.

At a moment like that, if you told me you heard it all I would feel like you were somehow trivializing my problems. Y'know, I don't care that you've heard this from other people; we're talking about me.

I'd be comforted knowing that you were there to help.
posted by kinetic at 2:26 PM on March 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

"I've heard it all" always makes me feel like what I'm sharing is on the far end of normal and something to be alarmed about.

I like the ones that focus on helping and sharing:

"I know that we're covering some very personal territory here, and I appreciate that you're willing to share with me," or just, "Thank you for sharing that with me."

"I'm here to help"


Focus on the positive aspects of what you are doing (listening, sharing, helping), not on what you might be doing (judging, hearing shocking things, etc.)
posted by 3491again at 2:27 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Okay, what else?"
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:42 PM on March 27, 2013

Whatever you choose to say, is it possible to deliver the line at the open of the conversation, before they disclose anything? It might sound less personal that way. I guess this won't work if you don't know the conversation will involve sensitive topics until it does, but if you are doing interviews or surveys, then you could toss a line into your intro.
posted by zizania at 2:45 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree that saying "I don't judge" can definitely unintentionally come across as "you are telling me something pretty out there, but don't worry, I'll be super nice about it," which is not necessarily what you want to get across. I think you want to get across "you should feel comfortable sharing with me!" and "I am listening to what you have to say so that I can ______." Like others have said, sharing this with your tone and body language is more effective than saying it outright, which can easily leave someone feeling tongue-tied. What if you don't say anything? Look them in the eye, continue smiling or looking comfortable, and wait for them to continue? This, to me, says "you are on track sharing this with me, keep going!"
posted by violetish at 2:54 PM on March 27, 2013

No problems.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:01 PM on March 27, 2013

I'm a nurse and understand where you're coming from. Often, it's not appropriate for me to put on a big smile or say something semi-jokingly because the person is describing to me how they have been abused, attacked, or otherwise violated and harmed. I don't know if you're in the same boat - if so, perhaps you can use the same short prefaces that I do.

When I begin taking a medical history, I start by saying something along the lines of, "I need to ask you some questions that might feel very personal. Please don't be afraid to be straightforward with me. I'm asking you these things so that I can care for you better." If you're not in a healthcare-related position, you could replace "care for" with "get to know."

If I suspect the person may currently be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (because of a positive tox screen), I may add something like, "Don't worry - I'm not the cops and I'm not here to get you in trouble. I am here to help you." I then ask simple, straightforward questions about drug and alcohol use. I don't know if that's applicable to your situation.
posted by pecanpies at 3:12 PM on March 27, 2013 [24 favorites]

I vote for something like, "OK," and then maybe asking a clarifying question to show you've been listening.
posted by mskyle at 3:50 PM on March 27, 2013

Best answer: Person here who could have been labeled as "at risk" for a big chunk of my young adult life!

I've had conversations with people who say, "I don't judge." This could just be me, but it is irritating and I instantly know they are not on my side. Just the word "judge" would bring to mind all sorts of holier than thou connotations I am sure you're not wanting to convey.

A lot of the answers above are ok (that don't contain the dreaded j-word), but I've always warmed more to, "I appreciate your honestly." or "Thank you for being so open with me." And then bounce a related question back at them to keep the conversation going while letting them know you were listening.

Also, it is ok to preface either of those sentences with a "Wow" or "Oh my." Because they already know what they are telling you is screwed up/holy crap/ugh information. For you to ignore it will either seem disingenuous or like you're not listening.
posted by haplesschild at 3:51 PM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

"That's more common than you'd think."
posted by gentian at 4:51 PM on March 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Yeah, that happens."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:13 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could say something like, "don't worry, this is just between you and me."
posted by wabbittwax at 5:26 PM on March 27, 2013

I would lose faith if you said you didn't judge, because it is virtually impossible not to judge. I would say, "Okay," "Uh-huh," "Please go on," or "I'm listening."
posted by amodelcitizen at 5:40 PM on March 27, 2013

I like the general idea of thanking them, and I might go with, "Thank you for trusting me with that," since it acknowledges that opening up to you is an act of courage and you are aware that it's hard for them.

I wouldn't make any mention at all of secrecy, because secrets are often very very bad things in at-risk populations (e.g., incest, etc.).
posted by jaguar at 5:45 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I assume (?) you are getting fairly bland statements about some fairly unpleasant stuff. There are theories about a negative sort of opening salvo being a method to rattle you and disarm you and thus attempt to make the class hierarchies a little more even. Bit different if it is clear that you are required to make inquiries along [unpleasant lines] and they are required to answer, but there is that dynamic out there, or at least theorised to be out there. +1 "Okay."
posted by kmennie at 6:09 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I don't judge" might imply that others do/would. I would just keep pushing forward with the conversation so you can accomplish what needs to be accomplished. I think that attitude, rather than any specific phrase, is most valuable.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:38 PM on March 27, 2013

I used to staff an emergency hotline. We were all trained not to react outwardly to potentially embarrassing or difficult admissions - we just continued to listen with a moderate sprinkling of listening words/noises - mhmm, I see, etc. We played it cool and
NEVER acted shocked, embarrassed or upset. We were careful not to say uh-huh or OK too much because those particular words make people feel ignored. If a caller said something really intense, we would echo the emotion they were showing - wow, that sounds really difficult, or man, that's rough, etc.

I can't tell you how incredibly grateful I am to have received that training. It has been sooooooooo useful in my life in so many ways.

Oh, and here is my general advice about difficult conversations - if possible match the energy level of your speech, empathizing and overall response to that of your conversation partner. If they are super upset or agitated don't play it ultra calm and vice versa.
posted by Cygnet at 7:13 PM on March 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation with regard to having to ask virtual strangers very personal questions that sometimes elicit embarrassing or private information. What I usually do is preface that set of questions with something like, "I realize that I'm basically a stranger, but I need to ask you a few questions about X, because those answers will determine what we do about Y. It's really important for you to be honest with me, but I'm not going to share anything you tell me with anyone else unless you give me permission to. And no matter what the answer is, it's not going to affect how hard I'm going to work on your behalf."

Your little speech may vary depending on the actual reasons you need to know and what you're going to do with the information. But the point is to acknowledge up front that you're in a weird situation and that these are hard questions. Then, after you get an answer to the question, you can say, "Thank you for telling me that. Knowing about that will help me do Y for you," or whatever it is you're going to do with that information. That keeps it about them and their situation rather than making it about your feelings. And you can communicate that you're not judging by keeping a normal tone of voice and facial expression and then going on with the conversation the same way you would if they had said something completely banal.
posted by decathecting at 7:16 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of good suggestions in this thread of better things to say than "I don't judge." "I don't judge" seems like one of those impossible-to-believe phrases, like "No offense." If someone prefaces a statement with "No offense.." then you know they think it is offensive — they're just hoping you don't have the reaction they fear. If I were telling someone about my life and the person responded with "I don't judge," I'd interpret as: "I am judging you, but I hope you don't think so." It also sounds like you're complimenting yourself for being an extraordinarily nonjudgmental person, so they're lucky to be talking to you instead of the average person, who would judge them. Not quite the ideal message.
posted by John Cohen at 7:26 PM on March 27, 2013

This depends on what exactly they're telling you, but EMTs often have to pop into the living rooms of total strangers and get them to do things that aren't entirely within the realm of normal interaction with strangers. Anything from detailing which illegal drugs the patient just took to recounting private bodily functions gone wrong or undressing for a visual or physical examination.

The approach we're taught depends on what exactly you need them to do. For something where there's an incentive to withhold information, like the drug usage, we're taught to make reassuring statements like what pecanpies described, combined with some justification for the question. The idea is to decrease the incentive to withhold information while providing a concrete reason for full disclosure.

On the other hand, if it's just norms-breaking stuff, like talking about flatulence and bowel movements, we're taught just to plough along as if there's nothing even remotely sensitive afoot. The idea is that this is an unfamiliar situation for the patient, so he'll model his behavior off ours on the assumption that we know the right way to act. In these cases, I wouldn't even acknowledge that anything sensitive is being disclosed, unless the patient were hesitatent, and then I might follow some of the more matter-of-fact suggestions, like "Yeah, that happens."
posted by d. z. wang at 7:33 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am a reporter and I've interviewed a wide range of people from multiple backgrounds, on a wide range of mundane and highly sensitive personal topics. I try to set boundaries at the start of the conversation so that the person I'm talking to understands what is going on. It's important to cover the types of information I would like to ask about, my interview subject's right to set boundaries on what we are discussing, and what kind of on-the-record/off-the-record rules we are going to cover.

Applying those concepts to your situation, I might try something like:
Thank you for coming in today (/for calling me today/for taking my call today/whatever). In order to (help you/provide housing/get you in to see the doctor/do whatever you do), I need to gather some information. I'm going to ask some pretty boring questions -- street address, job history, so on. I'm also going to ask some pretty personal questions (examples). (Insert statement about what rights the person has as far as answering questions goes -- like 'You don't have to answer every question, but if you don't answer some questions you may not be eligible for services' or 'You are required to answer all questions' or whatever.) (Insert statement about confidentiality -- what information are you recording, who can you share this information with, what is secret no matter what, what are you required to report.)"

A specific theoretical example following that formula:

Thank you for coming in today. In order to get you in to see the doctor, I need to gather some information. I'm going to ask some pretty boring questions -- street address, job history, so on. I'm also going to ask some pretty personal questions -- sexual history, drug use, things like that. The more honest information you share, the better the doctor can help with your health. But you don't have to answer every question, and it's better to say, "I don't want to talk about that," than to lie. Everything you tell me today is a secret with one exception: If you're in danger or somebody else is in danger, there are some situations where I'm required to contact the police. Do you want to know more about that? (Elaborate if yes.) Do you have any questions? Is there anything you want to know about how this works?

Once I start a conversation, I make it a point to make eye contact, to mirror the body language of the person I'm talking to, to show that I'm interested and that I am taking what I'm hearing seriously. I am not afraid to ask difficult questions, but I try to be gentle about it:
* "I'm sorry to raise this sensitive topic, but I have to ask about ..."
* "The next questions on the list are very personal, but your answers are important because ..."
Make eye contact while listening, pay attention, ask follow ups.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:18 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I've felt most comfortable with someone, and when people were most comfortable with me, was when we showed our non-judgmentalness by simply moving on with the conversation. Don't apologize or furrow or fret. Just be "natural" and react as if they were sharing any other kind of information. Which is to say, don't really react at all. Everyone knows you are there to deal with difficult things, there is no need to apologize or rationalize or trivialize.

Client: When I was 8, I puked in front of the whole class. (pause)
Therapist: What caused that? Were you not feeling well?

With your tone being what I would describe as warm, slightly empathetic (with their discomfort at the situation, but too much so as to derail the interview. Being too empathetic can shut people down because they react to your empathy and want to stop making you feel bad.) but mostly interested in hearing the rest of the story. Like James Lipton interviewing someone.

My own preference is to NOT hear people say things like "I've heard it all" because that somehow objectifies and legitimizes whatever discomfort and/or trauma is going on. Someone has to have the worst story this person ever heard, what if it's mine? Freak out! Shut down!
posted by gjc at 8:44 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

When patients look like they're waiting to see if they've shocked or upset me, I say something like "Okay," (in a mildly encouraging, "go on" kind of tone) or "That happens." If someone seems upset or uncomfortable at having to disclose information, I usually go with, "I know this is personal," or "Thank you for explaining that to me."

Later, to introduce a specific follow-up question, I might say, "Other people who have done that/had that happen to them have told me that they sometimes feel/do x," to further normalize the disclosure.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 8:51 PM on March 27, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for the thoughtful responses. I've marked a few as favorites that seem to pertain to my situation, but there wasn't a bad answer in the bunch.

I've definitely been given ideas and techniques that I can work with.
posted by 1066 at 9:38 PM on March 27, 2013

I don't mind "I don't judge" (I do think it's respectful), but also agree that reacting honestly ("oh my goodness," when called for) is good.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:11 PM on March 27, 2013

Discussing this in a detached way, here on Metafilter, analyzing it, I can see how a statement like "It's ok, I've heard it all" sounds like it could be judgmental or dismissive. But in the moment, I have to say that this has been comforting to me as well.

Literal meaning aside, it worked. Somehow, it gets across the idea of "there but for the grace of god go I" and "I don't judge" and "this is more common than you think," and the comfort of "there's always someone way more fucked up than me and this could be worse."

I dunno, our brains are weird.

Try out a few variations. See what seems to hit the spot for comfort with your body language, their body language, and their response. Good luck.
posted by desuetude at 12:01 AM on March 28, 2013

also, it's worth keeping in your quiver something like "I'm sure this is hard to talk about, but it's really helpful to get as much information as possible" (or whatever fits with the nature of your chat). even "this is good/useful"...
posted by acm at 8:21 AM on March 28, 2013

I'm a sexual health educator and I've worked with a diverse population in settings from clinic to hotline to street to sex toy shop, all involving people sharing very intimate, personal information with me. While different settings and clients call for different sorts of responses, I've found that in almost every instance the best thing is to take the information in stride, acknowledge that you've heard it, ask relevant clarifying questions if necessary, and just keep going. Not necessarily like it's no big deal, because of course it's significant that they're sharing with you and that needs to be acknowledge (even if only silently to yourself), but like it doesn't need to be justified or commented on negatively or positively.

When I'm talking to a client who's clearly nervous and needs permission to share or reassurance that you're not going to judge them (or have them arrested, take their children from them, get them fired, or have them committed), sometimes a "Hey, I've heard it all" or "Thank you for being so open with me" or (if applicable and true) "This is just between us" can help a lot.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:12 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I'm with you."
posted by cairdeas at 4:50 AM on April 29, 2013

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