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 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.