Why you should not have an opinion

Opinion-is-the-medium-between__quotes-by-Plato-91

Opinions are not facts. Don’t use them as such. Opinions are personal, they make everything personal, and shut out nuanced views. Try to probe for any unconsciously known facts that may be hiding behind an expressed opinion. If not there, rethink your position.
  • “I think this will be a great, large market for us”
  • “I think Jim will make a great VP”
  • “We cannot withhold the bonus from the engineering team this year”
  • “Our shipping costs are killing us”

I often find myself in meetings where these types of statements are abundant. Entire conversations revolve around them, with opinions being exchanged, but rarely a solution arrived at.

There are several good reasons why opinions are bad for you – at work and in life:

How opinions undermine your effectiveness

1. Opinions are not facts.

Let’s take it apart: Why do you think that this is a great market? How exactly do you know this? What does ‘great’ mean? It is profitable enough? What is the opportunity cost of pursuing this versus another segment? Do we have the resources to execute on it?(See “Define that!“, and Rule #2: “Precision” here)

Here’s the thing: It’s not what you think, it’s what is true. It’s what you can prove. It’s what you can demonstrate.

What if you said this instead:
” This is a profitable $100 million opportunity for us in a $2 billion market”. (Be prepared to follow this up with “And here’s why” – show your analysis).

This is a much more actionable statement, because it contains objective and provable information ($100mil, profitable), vs. subjective (‘large’) You can now compare this opportunity to others, similarly ‘great’ ones! Contrast this with “I think this is a great market” and you will appreciate the difference.

2. Opinions make it personal.

When you state an opinion, it becomes yours. It is identified with you, and you are compelled to defend it. This makes every argument personal. And, if you haven’t done enough homework to back up your opinion, what do you do with the objections that will arise?

If, instead, you offer facts, you allow people to debate with your data, rather than with you personally. You can debate the assumptions that will make this opportunity profitable, without having to accept or reject your entire statement. E.g. you may only have to modify an assumption, and see how it modifies your conclusion – maybe this will be a profitable $100mil opportunity, assuming we can source enough materials under a certain cost number. It is easier to modify a statement, based on facts, than to reject/accept it in its entirety.

3. Opinions invite more opinions

When you offer an opinion, you invite others to do the same! It is easy for this discussion to disintegrate into a heated exchange of opinions: “I think our shipping costs are killing us”, vs. “No, I think it’s the new packaging” all around the table. Again, data and facts have a hard time entering into this conversation, which, in turn, makes it all but impossible to reach a good, fact-based decision.

In these situations, someone in the meeting, needs to stop the exchange of points of view and return the conversation to questions of evidence: “What do you mean by ‘are killing us’ exactly?” “What are we comparing this to? Last year? Other companies?”  “What changed in our costs and why?” “What specific shipping options and costs do we have?

The bottom line is : We would be having much more productive, and less conflict-ridden discussions in our public or private lives, if we would stay with facts, and away from strongly-, simply- or wrongly-stated opinions.

4. Opinions don’t allow for nuance

Opinions tend to be simplified and generalized statements, rather than complete thoughts with specific data and conditions under which they are valid. As such, opinions don’t allow for the sophistication and complexity of the real world.

You are not likely to say: “I think is will be a great opportunity for us, if we can manage to keep material costs under x, and hire a VP who has done this sort of business before successfully”. If you were prepared to say all this, you would probably also have added the specific definitions of ‘great’ also, which would have resulted in the more robust statement of:
“Our analysis shows that this can be a $100mil profitable opportunity, assuming we can to keep material costs under x, and hire a VP who has done this sort of business before successfully”.

Behind an opinion lie one of two things: ignorance, or unconscious knowledge of relevant facts.

To be fair to all of us who argue our ‘opinions’, it is often the case that it is actually based on some facts, but we are not consciously aware of them!

Why is that, and how do we move from there?

You may know more than you think you do (Or do you?)

1. Probe for unconsciously known evidence

If you think that Jim will make a great VP, maybe it’s not just ignorance or a desire to appeal to Jim. Maybe you have some information that has been integrated in your memory, and you are not consciously recalling. A lot (in fact, most, according to latest neuroscience research), of our memories live ‘dormant’ in our memory centers and are activated without our full awareness. Our job is to locate them and bring them to the front. Then, we actually do have supporting evidence, and we should make it known.

So, maybe you have seen Jim operating at a previous job, ten years ago. He did very well, and was about to be promoted when he left. You can now articulate all the great skills people praised him about.

Or, you know about the shipping costs, because you know that the industry standard is about x% of sales, and you are now at 3x. You also know it is ‘killing’ you, because if you took them back to the x% the company would be profitable! Now, that is good supporting evidence. (What you can do about it, is a matter for another discussion, but at least you are developing some credibility around your ‘opinion’).

Or, you claim that engineering should be paid a bonus. Is that a pure, unsubstantiated opinion? Maybe not. You have been talking to many engineers over the past month and you know that there is a wave of dissatisfaction rising, and that not getting their reviews and feedback on a timely basis is frustrating them. This may not be the time to cut the bonus. Maybe you should fix the review process first.

Make sure you probe for any underlying knowledge, facts that you or the others may not be immediately offering. Asking questions gives them the benefit of the doubt, and may uncover valuable evidence.

2. If you don’t find any facts, agree to reconsider your position.

This is simple. Get into the habit of scrutinizing your own and others’ opinion for hidden knowledge. But if you don’t find any, it is time to rethink it. It is good practice, and will keep you objective and credible.

How different is this from: “I think this is a great market”!

Rule#3: Good decisions are based on facts, not opinions. (See “The 10 secrets of remarkable consulting”)

Practice tip: Next time you are having a discussion with your team try this:

Go through an entire conversation without using the words “I think”, “I believe” etc.

And, when someone still goes back to an unsupported opinion, remember to Ask the Questions: “Why?”, “How much?”, “When?”, “How exactly?” Get the facts.
It’s harder than it sounds! But hopefully, you will make more informed decisions, start changing the culture to a more rigorous, data-driven environment, and keep your friends too!

Marina K
marina@theQuestionsYouAsk.com
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