Why Caregivers Should Withhold Judgments

Observe before you judge

For twenty-five years as a professor and speech-language pathologist at San Francisco State University, I emphasized to my students the importance of observing before making judgments. While we may expect nothing less from professionals, as caregivers we often render judgments before observing.

Observing Before Judging

Edmund Husserl, an early-twentieth-century philosopher, believed the main reason for inappropriate assessments in social relationships was the distortion of events.

His position was a lack of observation caused the distortions.  

As a hospice bedside volunteer, and caregiving counselor I’ve found caregivers are prone to judge before observing. I think this rush to judgment has to do with the constant stress caregivers experience. After fifteen hours of nonstop caring, it’s easy to look at an inappropriate behavior as “unappreciative,” rather than “understandable.”

Judging is Easy. Observing is More Difficult

Judging before carefully observing is a quick and easy way of understanding why your sacrifices aren’t appreciated. A better and more productive approach is to identify what may have precipitated an unexpected and unjustified behavior (e.g. unappreciative comment made to you after a nonstop fifteen-hour caregiving stint).

A hospice patient was angry with everyone, including me. The commonly held belief attributed his anger to dying of hepatitis. His outbursts led most people to avoid interactions.

I watched an unprovoked verbal attack on a staff member who asked how he was feeling. I remained in the background, observing and trying to understand the relationship between the patient’s anger and what staff people were saying. There didn’t appear to be any.

What I noticed was statements regarding when events were scheduled triggered his anger.

Simple things such as “Breakfast will be ready at eight,” “The massage therapist will be here at four,” and “Your next dose of medicine will be at one o’clock.” Scheduling events was understandable given the number of patients treated in the hospice. But for the patient, it was disconcerting how little control he had over his life.

“Bill,” I said, “Would you like me to bring up your laundry now or later?”

It was a simple statement giving him a choice in a shrinking world. It also changed our relationship. The dignity of being in control of one simple thing resulted in his acceptance of me as a caregiver. If I had rushed to a judgment this was a man angry about dying, I would have reacted differently to him. But by observing first, I realized his anger was related to the belief he wasn’t being treated as a cognitively intact human being who could make choices.

What to Do

Unexplainable behaviors and words rarely occur in isolation. There is always a history. Judging the intent or meaning of these types of behaviors and words without careful observation creates the possibility of misperceptions and short-circuits understanding how the problem can be prevented in the future.

Take your time observing what’s happening when loved ones and friends do or say something unexpected or out of character. Ask yourself the following questions before you make any judgment: 1)What immediately preceded it?  2)What was I doing? 3)What was simultaneously occurring physically and emotionally?

By answering these three questions prior to making a judgment, you’ll reduce the probability of misunderstanding the person you are caring for, and you’ll develop a basis for preventing the behaviors from occurring in the future.

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