“You can disagree with me if you want to be wrong”
Fact, Fiction and Opinion
Know the differences
The more work I do helping individuals and teams succeed, the more clarity I gain about the fundamentals. For instance, I have concluded that it is all about relationships. Everything we do requires us to be in relationship with others, especially in our work lives. When a relationship flourishes or flounders, communication is usual at the core (good or bad).
As I work to try to enhance communications between people and among teams, I observe common traps in communication, and develop tools for dealing with them.
One such trap is confusing fact, fiction and opinion.
There are some things in life that are facts. There are some things in life that are fiction. Most things, however, are opinions.
The problem comes when we think our opinions are facts, and perhaps worse, when we think other people’s opinions are fiction. Opinions are neither fact nor fiction, they are opinions.
It is an incredibly easy trap to fall into. For instance, to say the world is round is a fact. To say it is flat is fiction. To say it is beautiful is opinion. That’s an easy one.
To say that the company lost money last month might be a fact. To say that everything went according to plan might be fiction. To say we did a horrible job is an opinion. Some would wiggle in their seat upon reading that. Of course we did a terrible job if things didn’t go according to plan and we lost money! It may seem to be the case, it may be obvious, but it is nonetheless an opinion. Now if it happens to be the opinion of a decision-maker, someone who is in a position to judge performance, that makes it a very important opinion, but still an opinion, not a fact.
Are you in a conversation where fact, fiction and opinion are being confused? It is possible to listen to key words to determine if someone thinks they are talking about fact or opinion. Similarly, it is possible to modify our own speech to make it more palatable because we are recognizing the difference between fact and opinion in what we say.
For instance, the statement “You are wrong,” would suggest that the person speaking believes that the conversation is about fact and fiction, and that they have the facts and the other party is dealing in fiction. Conversely, the statement “I disagree” leaves open the possibility that it is a matter of opinion without demeaning the legitimacy of your position.
If someone is using the “You are wrong” approach when you believe it is clearly a matter of opinion, it can be helpful to make a comment like, “It really isn’t a matter of right and wrong, it is a matter of opinion as to which option is the most desirable.” This can give everyone perspective, and decrease the tension.
As I sit back and listen to people discuss controversial topics, much of the conflict pivots around what the facts are, when they are really discussing whose opinion is the most valid, relevant or appropriate. Merely pointing this out to people often gives them just enough perspective to shift the flavor of the conversation and make it much more productive.
Skilled leaders and decision-makers have developed tools for dealing with this. One common one is to simply point out to people that you earnestly desire to hear their opinions, but ultimately you will need to make a decision, and not everyone will agree. The absence of total agreement does not mean the decision is incorrect, it just means that two people have different opinions and only one of those people gets to make the decision.
If you are not the decision-maker in the conversation, it can be productive to point out that the conversation is about opinion, and further, that ultimately it will be the decision-maker in the room whose opinion will prevail. Consider thanking them for considering your opinion in the process.
- Facts are a certainty. They do not change from person to person or from one location to the next. They can be proven with evidence.
- Opinions can vary from one person to the next without either of them being wrong. They express an attitude, a belief, a judgment or a conclusion.
- When you are in a conversation or facing a decision, try to perpetually evaluate whether you are dealing in a world of fact and fiction, or just differing opinions.
- Watch out for the trap of confusing fact with opinion. If the conversation is really about opinion, point this out.
- Remember that most decisions are based on the opinion of the decision-maker, and this does not make the decision invalid.