“What is so” vs. “What we say about what is so”

“What is so” vs. “What we say about what is so”

Guest Blogger Bio:

Chalmers Brothers is a certified executive coach, leadership development consultant, speaker and best-selling author.  His books “Language and the Pursuit of Happiness” (2005) and “Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence” (2015) have been adopted by the leadership / coaching programs at Georgetown University, George Mason University, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Newfield Network (US, Europe and Asia) and many others.  He and his wife of 31 years have 3 grown children and live in Naples, FL.

In the classic bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins calls it “confronting the brutal facts” – that is, the ability of successful leadership teams to open themselves up to and accept how things actually are right now… as opposed to how they might like them to be. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s a necessary starting point for effectively bringing about desired changes, whether those changes are in:

  • revenues
  • profitability
  • workplace culture
  • public identity
  • process or product quality
  • levels of customer service
  • team productivity or
  • any other important metric.

As intuitive as this distinction may sound – we are talking about objective facts vs. subjective opinions here – I have found that in a surprisingly large number of cases, otherwise highly-intelligent, thoughtful leaders and teams do not do a very good job of separating these in their most important conversations. And because the quality of our conversations drives the quality and nature of our commitments, and because our commitments then drive our collective actions and results… this is important to notice.

As human beings, we are constantly and ongoingly “making up stories” about the events and circumstances we confront in our lives. This isn’t good or bad, right or wrong – it’s simply part of “living in language,” part of what goes along with being a human being. These stories aren’t fibs, fabrications or purposeful manipulations, nor are they self-deceptions. In the great, vast majority of situations, they are simply interpretations. They are explanations.

There is no problem that we do this, in and of itself, as it apparently is a built-in feature of all human beings!  The problem, of course, is that we don’t see that we are doing this. The problem is that we end up confusing events with explanations… confusing “what is so” with “what I say about what is so”! In the work that I do, we say this is confusing assertions (facts) with assessments (opinions). And the inability to make this distinction, this lack of rigor in this area, has significant – and predictably negative – consequences on a wide variety of organizational results.

Building on this, I’d like to share with you a powerful distinction that I promise can be of great benefit to you and your teams. But before doing so, I’d like to introduce you to the power of distinctions more generally – because new distinctions are directly associated with capacity for new actions. And new actions, of course, are required for new results.

Example: I can never take the action of successfully changing a spark plug, and producing the result of a better-running car… unless I can see a spark plug to begin with when I pop open the hood! Make sense? The first step in taking this new action is to first acquire the distinction “spark plug”. Then and only then can I take the action of changing them. Similarly, you can never take the action of separating “what is so” from “what you or others say about what is so” unless you have the distinctions “event” (objective) and “explanation” (subjective)… or “facts” (objective) and “opinions” (subjective)… or “assertions” (objective statements of what is so) and “assessments” (subjective judgments made by individuals about what is so).

Assertions (what we usually call facts) are where language is least generative and most descriptive. They are the so-called facts of life, and they can be True or False, and are always verifiable by an objective third party. They are not contingent on me or you, our personal / social histories, what mood we happen to be in, or our current beliefs in any particular area. They belong to the thing being observed, they are descriptive statements, they are past- and present-oriented and they are simply “what is so.” Examples of assertions are:

  • Our sales figures this quarter are 30% below what they were this time last year.
  • Anita has been in her position for 3 years.
  • Jim is the supervisor of the service department.
  • We have the third largest market share of any company in our industry.
  • One third of our employees have had training in emotional intelligence.
  • It’s raining now.

Assessments (what we usually call opinions), on the other hand, are radically different. They are profoundly subjective, having everything to do with me and my standards, my experiences and biases and preferences, my life experiences and beliefs, my moods and emotions, my biological heritage and my genetic pre-dispositions. Our assessments are creative, serving to set context and “orient” us, pre-disposing us to interpret future events differently – because we human beings love to be right! They are based on personal, historical and social standards and can never be “objectively verified” the way assertions can. They can, however, be grounded (connected to true assertions and conscious standards) or not. Examples of assessments are:

  • Our sales figures this quarter are terrible (or excellent… or OK… or concerning…)
  • Anita has been in her position for a long time.
  • Jim is a great supervisor, though he’s not as organized as Sameer.
  • Our market share is solid, given our history.
  • We don’t have enough employees with training in emotional intelligence.
  • The weather is terrible.

How many of us know people who seem not to be able to separate their assertions from their assessments? That is, people who live as if their assessments (personal opinions, subjective judgments) were assertions (objective facts)? What’s it like to be with and work with such people?

What would it be like to work in an organization in which 5 key leaders are operating with 5 different understandings of “what is so?” How challenging is alignment in such an environment?

I invite you to share this distinction with your team, and to give everyone permission to ask a straightforward question of each other during important meetings: “Are you saying that X is a fact, or are you saying it’s your opinion?” This simple question has the ability to produce an extremely valuable, extremely productive conversation.

I recall a quote from Carl Rogers that, to me, is applicable here: “The curious paradox is this – once I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” It’s the declaration of acceptance of “what is so” – at this moment – that provides the context for new, effective action for us as individuals and organizations. If you’re looking for a catalyst for meaningful change, an honest conversation about “what is so” may be a great starting point.

As a leader, you are a conversational architect and a conversational engine. The quality of your conversations is a key driver of the nature and quality of your commitments. And the nature and quality of your commitments, of course, drive the actual actions and real-world results produced by your organization.

For more on Assertions and Assessments, see chapter 8 in Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence.

Wishing you only continued success… and remember: Never Stop Learning!

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