Take Pains to Differentiate Fact from Opinion

A lesson in communication and leadership from my new book Ingaging Leadership

We are living in a time when many people express their opinions as if they were facts. Many do it unknowingly, others intentionally. We hear politicians do it. It has also become commonplace on talk radio and television news.

When people speak with any level of passion or conviction, they often speak as if what they are saying is a fact. In reality, much of what people try to pass off as facts are simply opinions. And when people state an opinion as a fact, their audience is prone to believe it to be a fact and react to it in a certain way. Most often, the conversation either ends or never gets to the point of addressing real issues.

You might hear someone in your organization say, for example, “You cannot bring that product to market by early next year because of A, B, and C.” That person is stating opinions as though they were facts and if you disagree, you look like you are calling him or her a liar.

If you cultivate the habit of delineating between fact and opinion during conversations, you become more empowered to move toward real solutions. If you fail to do so, miscommunications usually result. Imagine, for example, that you’re asking for advice about a particular issue, but that you express your opinion of that situation as though it were undisputable truth. In such a case, the advice that you receive will probably not have great merit, because the other person will not base his or her advice on a wider and more comprehensive understanding of what the situation really is.

From the other side of the equation, it is wise to cast a similarly critical eye on the information you receive, by consistently challenging the assumption that what is being said or presented to you is actually fact. To make the most informed decisions, you need to investigate and become as certain as you can that you are considering not opinions, but the reality of what is taking place.

Now, it’s not realistic to think you can do this with absolutely everything that comes across your desk or in every conversation. Time limitations and pressures often will keep you from probing on a deep level into what you are hearing. And you do not need to do so all the time – not when you are dealing with low-priority issues or activities, for example. But you certainly should do it when you are dealing with serious or deep issues. That’s where you’ll want to dig deeper – to look at every angle to get to the real facts.

When you get there, you’ll realize a significant improvement in business. Fact or opinion? You decide.

Communications skills that help differentiate opinions from facts . . .

When you are offering an opinion, precede it with the phrase, “In my opinion.” This differentiates opinions from facts. Perhaps more importantly, it raises the quality of the conversation by inviting people to contribute to your opinion, refute it, or offer productive alternatives of their own.

Ask other people, “Is what you are saying a fact or an opinion?” This strategy, like the one just above, encourages others to be more alert to situations in which they are tempted to offer their opinions as facts.

Point out when other people are presenting opinions as facts. This can be difficult to do because in a way, you are pointing out that those other people might be lying. Plus, it can be unpleasant to challenge other people’s opinions. If someone says, for example, “Your price increases are killing sales,” you should consider exposing that statement by stating that it is an opinion, not a fact. You can then explore that opinion to see if it has validity or is simply an attempt to box you into a corner or limit a productive search for information and solutions. In some cases, you will discover the other person is simply trying to advance his or her own agenda or goals. One good choice of words is to say, “I believe . . .” (“I believe that other factors could be at work too . . . let’s explore some more.”) In a non-confrontational way, those words help you address the reality that another person is expressing an opinion as though it were a fact.

Get into the habit of looking for facts. If someone says, “Your price increases are killing sales,” you can work with that person to arrive at statistics, data, feedback, and facts that either support or refute the opinion. This elevates the quality of your conversation to a level of higher ingagement.

An Experiment for You to Try

Over the next two days, pay attention to times when people state opinions as facts. Watch some commentary shows on television and notice when it’s taking place. Pay attention to your own communication too, and try to make sure that others know when you are stating an opinion. What do these steps tell you about how effectively you and other people in your organization make this important distinction?

About Evan Hackel

Evan Hackel is CEO of Tortal Training, a leading training development company, and principal and founder of Ingage Consulting. He is the host of Training Unleashed podcast, and author of the book Ingaging Leadership. Evan speaks on Seeking Excellence, Better Together, Ingaging Leadership, and Attitude is Everything. To hire Evan as a speaker, visit evanhackelspeaks.com and follow Evan on Twitter @ehackel.

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