Facts, Opinions and The Language of Leaders

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Fact vs. opinion. Seems clear, doesn’t it? Turns out, not at all. And, there’s much to learn from this seemingly obvious distinction. Let’s start by shifting our language slightly and speak about assertions (which include facts) and assessments (which include opinions.) When we make statements (vs. promises and requests) they are, for the most part, one or the other–either an assessment or an assertion.

Here’s a simple example of the distinction: “I am short” vs. “I am 4″11.” In most contexts and with most groups of adults, there’s quite a bit of truth to the statement that ” I am short” it is, nonetheless, an assessment. It cannot be proven absolutely true or absolutely false. When I spent time with my mother’s extended family, full of women who, for the most part, didn’t make it to 4″9, I was no longer short. Yet, I was still 4″11. This is an assertion. It can be proven true or false.

At this point you might be thinking, “I learned this around the 3rd grade. Isn’t this just a grammar lesson?” Well, no. In our daily lives–and as leaders–we tend to be pretty sloppy about this distinction–with significant consequences. By being more mindful of the distinction, we can improve the quality of our communication and avoid many of the communications breakdowns that we experience.

There is nothing wrong with assessments. We do and must make them all the time. We are wired to make assessments. The problem arises when we:

  • Aren’t aware that they are assessments and
  • They are not “grounded”–not based in evidence, or not relevant to the context in which they are being made.

Let’s start with the problem of not realizing our assessment is just an assessment.  In the words of Flores: “Believing your information is truth can blind you to different interpretations and possibilities.” On the other hand, knowing that what we’re saying is an assessment and being conscious of that means that there remains a possibility that we might be wrong or that there’s another way of seeing or interpreting the same thing. And, here’s something to consider: any time we make a statement about the future it is, by definition, an assessment. There are no “facts” about the future. So, when we think we’re stating a fact about the future, (e.g., “There is no way I’ll ever be able to do that.”) we are creating a reality that has not yet happened and closing the door on the possibility of seeing something differently.

Next, let’s talk about grounding assessments. A grounded assessment is a statement that, while not true or false, is supported by a set of assertions that are relevant and limited to the situation at hand. Recently someone asked me what I thought about a candidate for a position he was hiring for. Because I was thinking a lot about assessments and assertions and about grounded assessments, I didn’t say what I first thought, which was: “He’s really nice but doesn’t get things done.” Instead, I said: “In the last position I worked with him in, a job that had a lot of competing demands, he seemed to have a hard time prioritizing those demands. And, what I noticed was that people really enjoyed working with him and he would try to help and support the team when he could.” Rather than rule him out, my colleague realized that the job he was hiring for was quite a bit more straightforward and my grounded, specific assessment was quite useful to him and meant he might be a good job candidate.

I felt pretty good. I hadn’t smeared someone’s character. I’d given good information and I’d been entirely forthcoming and as honest as I could be. And, I was clear that this was my assessment, not facts. Since this particular colleague valued my opinion highly, I was particularly aware that I could, with my words, make or break someone’s chances–and this distinction was invaluable.

I’ve just skimmed the surface here–and I hope you can already see just how important a topic this is. Grounding assessments, consciously, is an act of leadership. As you model it and practice it, others will begin to adopt it as well. And, you can explain what you’re doing–and why. You’ll watch the culture shift as grounded assessments become the norm.

So, take time in the next few days and observe your speech patterns. See what you find and how you can shift.

Note: Fernando Flores, author of Conversations for Actions, is my primary source for much of the work I’m doing on language–it’s also referenced in my previous blog about leadership language. I draw on his work in coaching, writing and speaking. While not an easy book to read, I recommend it highly. Another couple of web-based resources on the topic can be found here and here.