I’m a communications guy—it’s what I think about and teach all day long. Yet no matter how many times I’m confronted with the crucial distinction between assessments and facts, which is what Pete Hamill discusses in the excerpt you’re about to read, I’m always caught short. My opinions about other people feel like facts. My brain distinguishes very little between “2+2=4” and “you are annoying and lazy.” I feel certain that both are objectively true.
That’s a big problem. Being good at giving feedback requires us to know the difference between fact and opinion (even when it’s well reasoned), not because it changes the content of the feedback we give, but because it changes how we talk about the feedback—and that changes everything.
It is much harder to communicate constructively about assessments and opinions than it is about facts; it requires not only clear explanation, but also the ability to listen with genuine curiosity. It requires that we move past arguments about who is right and who is wrong, and into a two-way conversation about why I see you differently from how you see yourself, and what we should make of that.
If there’s any leadership task that is harder than listening with an open mind even when you have a strong view, I haven’t encountered it. And surely, none is more important.
An excerpt from chapter 8 of Embodied Leadership:
The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership
Assessments are our opinions, perspectives, interpretations or judgements. If you think about it, the chances are that you are paid for your assessments—they are the educated opinions that you have about your business, having spent time in the industry/organization/sector or having expertise in a particular field.
What assessments are not is facts, and this is a major source of conflict in organizations. If I observe someone yawning and looking out the window during my presentation, I may have the assessment that they are tired, bored, uninterested or any other of a variety of different assessments. Once I have the germ of an idea in my head that this person is uninterested in what I am working on, then I will start looking for evidence to corroborate that belief—human beings love nothing more than to be right!
Soon I will have more evidence—instances where the person looked at their watch whilst I was speaking, further yawning when I am speaking in meetings and so on. I will also start to block out the occasions when they do respond well to me, or explain them away as being about something else—for instance: “They just wanted to show up well to the boss who was in that meeting.” Over a relatively short time I will have a collection of evidence that this person is uninterested in my work. If I was never really close to this person, perhaps I can then take an extra leap and say that the person never really liked me anyway.
Eventually I will have a clear perspective on this person and who they are, and often my belief about it will be unshakeable. However, this isn’t true. It’s not false either. It lies in the world of opinions, which are not facts and therefore cannot be true or false. You and I can go to a movie and have completely different opinions about the movie, the actors and actresses in it, the core message of the plot lines and so on. These will be our opinions and we can spend hours arguing over them, but the reality is they are not truth or falsehood—they are our opinions.