Despite what we learned in elementary school, distinguishing fact from opinion—and to a lesser degree perhaps, truth from fiction—is not easy. In our day-to-day lives, these distinctions are frequently blurred. Throughout the recent election cycle, we heard a lot about facts and opinions. While this topic certainly has a unique meaning in a political context, my intention here is to explore it through the lens of leadership—and hopefully offer up a perspective that is useful for team leaders.
Assessments vs. Assertions
Before we go further, I’m going to shift the language slightly: rather than reference things as facts, I will use assertions; and instead of opinions, assessments. This adjusted language draws from the work of Fernando Flores who has influenced many thought leaders. He suggests that there five basic acts of speech: assessments, assertions, promises, requests, and declarations. By becoming more aware of how these acts of speech operate, and the power they possess to create our world, we can shift the quality of our language, and by association, our leadership and our lives.
When we make statements, they are primarily either assertions or assessments. Assertions can be proven to be true or false. Assessments are not absolutely true or false, but are a contextual or relative statement—or an opinion.
Here’s a simple example of this distinction: “I am short” (assessment) vs. “I am 4’11” (assertion). In most contexts, and with most groups of adults, it is true when I say, “I am short.” However, when I spend time with my mother’s extended family, full of women who, for the most part, didn’t make it to 4’9, I am no longer short. My assessment is no longer true. But I am still 4’11. This is an assertion which can be proven true or false.
The Problem with Assessments
By now you might be thinking, “Isn’t this just grammar?” In my experience, it’s much, much more. We are very often quite sloppy about the distinction between assessment and assertion—both in our speaking and thinking. And, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with assessments (we need to make them), problems arise when we:
- Aren’t aware that they are assessments, and
- Our assessments 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.” When we know that what we’re saying is an assessment, not an assertion, there remains a possibility that we might be wrong, or that there’s another way of seeing or interpreting the same thing.
Here’s something else to consider: any time we make a statement about the future, it is an assessment. There are no “facts” about the future. So, when we think we are stating a fact about the future (e.g. “There is no way I’ll ever be able to do that” or “This project simply cannot succeed”), we are creating a reality that has not yet happened, and we are closing the door on the possibility of seeing or experiencing something differently.
Team leaders who present opinions (assessments) as facts (assertions), will struggle with engagement and culture: presenting an opinion as fact closes off debate, discourages collaboration, and creates a culture of distrust.
Make Grounded Assessments
When we are moving quickly, not looking at the data, not listening to others, or not being open to multiple perspectives, we make assessments that are not grounded. A grounded assessment is supported by a set of assertions (facts) and are generally limited to what we can accurately assess. And, we make it very clear that they are assessments.
Here’s an example: recently a colleague asked me what I thought about a candidate for a position he was hiring for. With the language of assertions and assessments in mind, instead of saying what I first thought, “the candidate is nice but doesn’t get things done,” I said: “in the last position I worked with him in, a job that had competing demands, he seemed to have a hard time prioritizing those demands. I also noticed that people liked working with him and he would support the team when he could. And, of course, in other situations he might be different.” Rather than rule him out, my colleague realized that the job he was hiring for might be a good fit for this person.
I felt good. I didn’t smear someone’s character. I’d given useful information and been honest. My colleague could enter the interview with an open mind—and better questions. Since he respected my opinion, I was aware that my words could make or break someone’s chances. I made a conscious effort to present a grounded assessment, and this distinction made a real difference.
Being clear about what is an assessment and what is an assertion is an act of responsible leadership. Grounding assessments opens doors to conversation and dialogue. As a leader, setting the example of consistently presenting grounded assessments can change the culture of your team and your organization.
The last months have been a testament to sloppy use of assertions and assessments in our political culture. Despite—or perhaps because of that—I believe that each of us, in our own use of language, can work to create cultures that are more honest, more respectful, and more thoughtful.
A first step is to observe your own speech patterns. When are you making assessments in the guise of assertions? When are your assessments not as well-grounded as they could be? Take time in the next few days and observe your speech patterns. When you notice, make a shift. See what happens. One statement at a time.
Note: Fernando Flores, author of Conversations for Actions, is my primary source for this blog post. I draw on his work in coaching, writing and speaking. There are several great resources available online, and I find these two helpful: Assertions and Assessments, and Assessments, Assertions, and Grounding.