When I write blog posts, I like to find a photo to accompany the post before I start to write. It is almost as though finding the photo helps me to become at peace with whatever it is that I am going to write.
Lately, I seem to to have had a preference for animal photos, and I think it is because they seem less staged than some of the human photos. As I try to find the perfect photo, I find myself forming opinions: The giraffe looks too graceful to accompany that story; The elephant is too strong to represent how broken I was feeling; and I was filled with fear during that story – I don’t think lions experience much fear.
Recently, as I was yet again forming opinions about photos for my blog post, the question that came to me was: How do the opinions that we form in life impact the way we in which we interact with others and the lives that we live? My opinions about the photos that I am choosing for my blog posts are probably quite harmless (in my opinion!) but what about some of the other opinions that we form throughout life? Are they just as harmless?
Two quotes that I think are quite relevant here, both said by people who are more well-known than I, are:
- I do not know how the world is; I only know how I observe it; and
- Humans are meaning making machines.
As we progress through life, we form opinions and create stories in order to create meaning; meaning means a lot to us. What we tend to forget, however, is that our opinions are our interpretation of the world at a particular moment in time, and they can depend upon how we are being in our language, emotions and body. Our opinions are not the explanation for the world, they are an explanation for the world. As an example of this, if two people go and see a movie, one could love the movie and one could really dislike the movie. Which person is correct? The answer is neither; both individuals have formed opinions that are based on the experience that they had. There is no right or wrong. We are making meaning, by interpreting the world how we see it from how we are being at the time, and not necessarily how the world is.
What if we start to think now about the opinions that we form of ourselves and others?
When we are interacting with others, there will always be interactions that come easily to us and interactions that don’t come quite so easily. During all of those interactions, we will be forming opinions of ourselves and those with whom we are interacting.
Depending on what is going on for us in our own language, emotions and body, we could be forming the assessment that someone is lazy, difficult, great to deal with, good at their job, incompetent, or whatever the case may be. Similarly, we could be forming opinions about ourselves, such as I can’t do this, I am not good enough to do this task, I am the best person for this task, I am a failure, I am the person to make this happen, and so forth.
All of these opinions are our own opinions. They aren’t right or wrong; they are simply how we are observing the world at that time. As per the movie example, two people in exactly the same situation could have a completely different view of the world, simply because their individual combinations of language, emotion and body – their individual ways of being – are different.
Cool, everyone forms opinions, so what?
As I mentioned earlier, we tend to forget that our opinions can’t be true or false and so we go forward in life, living our opinions as truth. If we have formed an opinion that a colleague is “incompetent”, we tend to move forward in life, treating the colleague, ourselves and all those around us as though that person is incompetent. For example, if I have formed an opinion that Person X is incompetent, the way in which I am going to treat that person will be different to what it would be if I had formed the opinion that Person X was extremely competent. Similarly, if I think that Person X is incompetent, then I may assign tasks to Fred and Sue that are outside of their comfort zone purely because I don’t trust Person X to complete those tasks. It could also mean that I form a different opinion of myself because I am judging myself in comparison to Person X. Meanwhile, I have created a whole reality based on my “truth” that Person X is incompetent. How would my reality be different if I had treated my opinion of Person X’s incompetence as an opinion and not a fact?
I think that when we understand our opinions to be opinions, we have the ability to understand that there are other possibilities: Perhaps Person X hasn’t worked in an environment like this one previously, and perhaps they are struggling – I wonder what I could do to help them; or The last person who worked with George was also considered incompetent by a few people – I wonder whether it is related to Person X’s interactions with George; or Person X always seems busy – I wonder if they are overloaded? All of a sudden, there are possibilities that just didn’t seem to be available when we accepted Person X’s “incompetence” as a truth.
In much the same way that our opinions of others aren’t “truth”, other people’s opinions of us and our opinions of ourselves are also not “truth”. Understanding this can be incredibly powerful and, again, can open up amazing possibilities. Now that I understand that the manager who said that I was “sh*t” at my job was sharing his opinion and not speaking the “truth”, I think it feels easier for me to find a way of dealing with that opinion. Understanding that this was one person’s opinion led to me (silently) questioning where the individual was at in his way of being to think that verbalising his opinion in such a way would be ok. Prior to considering this as an opinion, in those days when I would have taken this as a truth, I would have started beating myself up for “getting it wrong again”, and would have made the situation about me. In a situation where someone is speaking their opinion as a truth in this way, that act says more about them than it does about the subject of their opinion. I think it is easier to understand that when we accept their statement as an opinion and not fact.
I have said a few times now that our opinions can’t be true or false. We can, however, have evidence that supports our opinions. When we combine the evidence that we have with our reasons for forming an opinion, we can really understand what sits behind our opinions and whether they are serving us. This process is called grounding, and our opinions can be grounded or ungrounded. If our opinions are ungrounded, we can still use them, and we accept responsibility for using them as ungrounded opinions.
The grounding process includes five questions, which I will explain below. The idea is that we choose the opinion that we would like to ground, and then we ask ourself to answer these questions.
For the purposes of the example below, I am going to assume that the opinion that I want to ground is I can’t do this. If you hold an assessment of “I can’t do this” for a specific situation, it is highly likely that your responses will be very different to what I have listed, and that is ok. I have listed examples to encourage thought, they are not opinions or truths.
1. For the sake of what future action am I forming this opinion?
(How is it helping me to have this opinion?)
For example, if I hold an assessment that “I can’t do this”, I might find upon asking myself this question that I am forming this opinion to avoid the possibility of me failing in the future; if tell myself that I can’t do it, then I won’t give it a go and I won’t fail.
2. In what specific domain of life do I hold this opinion?
This, I think, is an important question. We can often assume that our opinions relate to the whole of life and it can be both surprising and empowering to discover that they may only be relevant to one small part of life.
For example, when I think about my opinion of “I can’t do this”, it might be that I find that I really only hold it in the context of being able to keep on top of my administrative tasks, yet I may have been treating myself as thought his assessment applied to my whole life.
3. What standard is the basis for forming this opinion?
This can be quite an eye-opener, since we can often find that we are holding ourselves to standards that may not be achievable. For example, for the opinion of “I can’t do this”, I may be comparing myself to the CEO’s executive assistant, who has been managing adminstrative tasks for twenty years and is considered quite an expert. As a manager whose main job is not administration, is this standard serving me? It might not be. What might be a more useful standard?
4. What are the true facts that support this opinion?
(Must be true facts; statements that can definitely be evaluated as true, and not opinions). I often find at this point that I have lots of opinions to support my opinions, and no true facts. Also, these true facts must be relevant to the standards and domain listed above). For example: I submitted the probation paper work for my new staff member a day late; I didn’t book the meeting that I told the CEO I would book.
5. What are the true facts that don’t support this opinion?
(This sounds a little odd. In the case of our example, what true statements can you find that don’t support the opinion of “I can’t do this”). When answering this question, I might find that I have submitted all expenses claims for my team a day early for the past 3 months, that I approve leave forms within 24 hours, that all annual performance paperwork is submitted without prompting, and my monthly reporting for the past two years has been completed before the deadline on each occasion.
The responses to questions 4 and 5 usually give us an idea as to whether our opinion is grounded. In the case of our example opinion, I would suggest that it is not grounded; there is more evidence that does not support the opinion than there is evidence that does support it. What does this mean? Well, perhaps by attempting to ground this opinion, we have just opened up the possibility that “I can do it”. Imagine what different possibilities would become available if we were to attempt to ground our opinions of others before taking action from them? For example, would we still hold the opinion that “Person X is incompetent” after attempting to ground it? How would that change the possibilities available to us and the reality that we create?
Opinions are incredibly powerful. From our opinions, we can create a whole story of the world, a whole reality, without even realising that we are doing so. And, we are doing it to make meaning of what we are observing in the world. By taking action from opinions such as “I can’t do this” or “Person X is incompetent” without taking responsibility for grounding those opinions before we act, we are creating for ourselves a reality in which those things exist. We can’t possibly ground every opinion that we have (believe me, I am a perfectionist; I have tried!), however, if we can accept that our opinions aren’t “the truth”, then we can take action from those opinions responsibly and in a way that holds all parties as legitimate.
Points to Ponder…
The invitation is to think of a situation that is not working quite how you would like to:
- What opinions do you hold of yourself in this situation?
- What opinions do you hold of others in this situation?
- How are those opinions serving you?
- Which opinions might it be useful for you to try to ground?
Note: If you would like to know more about the detail behind assessments (opinions) and assertions (statements that can be evaluated as true or false). this earlier blog post may be useful for you.
– The featured image in this blog post is a photo by Pixabay on Pexels
– I first heard Alan Sieler from The Newfield Institute say “Humans are meaning machines”. What I can’t remember is whether he was quoting someone else at the time. I will endeavour to find out so that I can attribute the quote correctly.
– Alan Sieler also provided me with the quote: “I do not know how the world is; I only know how I observe it” and, again, I can’t remember whether this is one of his or he was quoting someone else. I *think* he may have been quoting. I checked my notes and did some googling and could not confirm this, so will endeavour to clarify it so that it can be correctly attributed.
Who am I?
I am a leadership and life coach, available for coaching and facilitation services. If you feel that it would be useful to have a conversation with me, please feel free to view my services on the Leading and Being website.