Communicating with judgemental people

It can seem like a contradiction in terms! How do you do it?

Example: There is a member of my extended family who I need to deal with on a nearly daily basis. And most utterances imply a judgemental world view. Such as “That’s good.”, “That isn’t right.”, etc. Doing this seems like it would need a lot of implicit baggage to be unpacked. If you are going to judge something as being “good”, don’t you need to first have some criteria for “good” to judge it against?

So I often find myself in the unenviable position of needing to tease out what their criteria are. So that their judgement might communicate something with actual meaning. But when I do this, they get HOTLY defensive that I am asking them questions. “Good in what way?”, “What do you think is the right thing to do, and why?”. But instead of ever elaborating, they shout at me for ridiculing them, and tell me that such questions are needlessly confusing somehow. They are dead set upon being as evasive as possible. But I consider being interested in what somebody says and asking them about it to be a display of respect - it acknowledges that I heard their position, and am giving them the opportunity to go into more detail. But them shutting me down with “Get lost, I don’t need to tell you what I mean!” seems to deflate and devalue their initial remark, that it was of no real significance in the first place, which I think is sad. It’s also rather disharmonious and inspires a degree of dread in needing to deal with this person so often.

Admittedly, my communication skills aren’t great. But how does one get anything done with people who appear hostile to the idea of any dialog? Why is it that the very people who are judgemental of others seem to be the ones who hate speaking up in any detail about what their own values are? It sets a dysfunctional example within the family. And I would like to instil in them some pride to actually feel that their views and values are worth expanding upon.


Virtually everyone operates on a whole bunch of assumptions, which most often, they have no idea they’re making. It sounds like your relative tends to make many such assumptions regarding their audience, which in your case are wildly off-base.

I’d bet they have no idea that your questions are genuine rather than rhetorical - your perspective is highly unusual, for the degree to which you’re prepared to question anything and everything. It’s invariably annoying to be made aware that you’re speaking without thinking.

I’d suggest that for such folks who you have such trouble with, you might try to get them to relate to you as if you’re an alien who understands nothing. If you make a game out of it, others can follow a set of rules for relating to you that helps.


I’ve given up on my sister-in-law. I cannot have a conversation with her. For one thing, it’s all me asking her about her. I sat across from her at dinner last week for 2.5 hours and there was not one question. How’s your mom? How’s work? When are you travelling next? What are your kids up to? Nothing – not a single question. I mean, I get that she’s not interested but Jesus H this is what adults do - they pretend to be interested! (me - I’m interested … perhaps not about every aspect of someone’s life but I’ll talk to anyone about anything – there’s a lot to be learned just from hearing what people want to talk about).

And sometimes goes like this

Me: Have you read any good books lately?
Her: Books!!! Books??? I don’t have time to read! I’m ASLEEP by 8 – I have to get up at FIVE to [and so forth]

Me: Do you guys have any trips planned this summer?
Her: Oh god no! We had to …

And so forth.

On top of that, she’s judging me and making assumption about me in ways I don’t appreciate. So … I’ll see you at Christmas and I’ll say hello and leave it at that. Giving her more time of my life means I’m taking it away from someone else – so … see ya.


It sounds like there’s a lot you’re not saying. My guess is that, to her, you sound like you’re using the Socratic method on her, which is a rude and aggressive thing to do. Sure, you can say “I was only asking questions,” but if the effect of your questions is to undermine somebody’s core beliefs, yea, they’re going to get angry.

It might work out if you just listen more. Listen carefully and you might even hear the clues you need in order to really understand.


I wish I could help. I’m dealing with what I think are very similar circumstances, during a tense period, in my family. The only viable option has been for me to become quite passive which is not my natural behaviour. Not a long term solution. Focusing on the mechanics of the conversation with constant qualifiers from me that I’m not imposing judgment allows what I’m trying to say to get through. I think.


A bit annoying maybe - but isn’t it less annoying than speaking without thinking and not being aware of it? That’s like avoiding physicians because they might tell you that you’re unhealthy. If you are, you’re certainly better off knowing it. And either way, the best cures are preventative. I find self awareness to be a constant struggle, and am grateful when people can help by pointing out my lapses. The “golden rule” certainly fails here with those who don’t see it that way.

I have done that! When I was a kid I heard a talk in which Robert Anton Wilson discussed the discipline of ethnomethodology, a sort of sociology OF sociology which does precisely this. It blew my mind that other people actually did experiments/games like this in universities. In my early teens I bought Harold Garfinkle’s Principles of Ethnomethodology and it was an insightful read. I should read it again sometime.

It can easily be both fun and interesting to do to see what happens and find out what you can learn from it. But it can be a trial of patience in non-abstract daily life where actual family matters need to be clarified and negotiated. Not unlike how I can appreciate poetry, but it would be stressful to be teamed with somebody using poetry to design, plan, and build a bridge.

I don’t disagree. But isn’t it equally rude and aggressive of them to subject the family to making poorly-coordinated plans and decisions? They know that problems result from this, but there is a degree of passive-aggressiveness at play. As if they have (im)plausible deniability by refusing to communicate very much. They lie to deflect minor disagreements, but claim indignance if I ask for substantiating details, making minor disagreements much worse.

I am obviously a very direct communicator, but I do listen and try to draw inferences. But they are very tight-lipped and not very honest. Most of what I can deduce is that they prefer to watch television and avoid discussing anything. I am happy for them to live by whatever whimsy they like, so long as it doesn’t interfere with my parenting. When it does, it is hard to not feel that they have some obligation to explain themselves. Since they seem confident that they are “right”, justifying themselves shouldn’t be too difficult. And I do offer them this benefit of doubt, which I don’t need to, and is yet a further gesture of respect they wouldn’t get from everybody.

Those are worst-case examples. Thankfully, it is not always so bad as that!

Another problem with the judgemental mindset is that it is natural for them to assume that every discussion is a way to judge them! So it plays out like a petty skirmish where they make a judgement about others, but then cease to talk or listen so others can’t do the same. It’s like the rhetorical version of leaving a burning bag of poop on somebody’s front step, ringing their doorbell, and running away. “Of course I run away! Otherwise you’ll tell me how much you dislike my dog poop stunt! Now leave me alone!” Every communication is framed as being a competition with a resulting winner and a loser.

My thinking is usually very methodical, and does not fit a judgemental style. Like giving somebody driving directions. It’s not “wrong” to drive this way, but if you do, you won’t ever get to your destination. So to have meaning, it seems that one of those factors would need to change. Otherwise, as I understand it, you will never get where you claim to be going. That’s simply an offering of my analytics without imposing any of my personal judgements upon them.


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