When I ask leaders and clients what is the single greatest cause of difficulties in professional relationships, on teams, and in organizations, the answer is remarkably consistent: miscommunication.

The next question about how to address this issue is where answers spin all over the place. The solution to miscommunication must begin with understanding how communication itself actually works. Leaders, managers, top professional services providers, and technical expert clients from all over the world have adopted my approach to produce major advance in their effectiveness.

The greatest cause of miscommunication is the failure to differentiate between facts and opinions. That is not what most communication training would offer, and below is why this answer will make you far more successful in all your communications.

Let’s start with distinguishing the difference between a fact and an opinion:

  • A fact is something that is verifiable as true or false by an acknowledged authority. Whether an office is 1250 or 1875 square feet, or whether a room is square or rectangle can be validated as true or false. That’s the essential issue of a fact. It’s true or it’s false and it can be proven. Just because a majority of people would agree on a statement doesn’t make it a fact. A fact must be observable and verifiable by any observer. If it is a fact It can be verified as either being true or being false by all objective authorities and observers.
  • Opinions on the other hand are very different. Opinions come from the way people think, analyze, and assess a situation or person – and the way they make their judgments. So, an opinion has no true or false to it; it is a reflection of a person’s point of view, which is neither true nor false.
    • For example, if I say, “I like what you do,” or, if I say “I can’t stand what you do,” it’s neither true nor false that what you are doing is good or bad. What is true is that is my opinion. However, while my opinion is neither true nor false – this opinion is a window into understanding how I think, analyze and assess – which means it is an outstanding opportunity to understand a person giving the opinion.

So, in the simplest form, if I say to you, “Your company is always screwing up,” or, “Your company is fabulous!” it is not an objective evaluation of your company, but is a potential window into understanding my thinking as the person giving the opinion.

When you use someone’s opinion as a way to understand how they think, evaluate, and make decisions you create a powerfully effective dynamic in your communications and relationship with them.

For example: If somebody says, “You’re always late with your projects,” and you start arguing: “No, I’m not always late” – you are arguing right and wrong about something that cannot be factually proven. When you are arguing who is right or wrong about an opinion, you create a combative relationship, which is especially destructive considering that opinions do not have right or wrong. Only facts can be evaluated as to whether they are right or wrong, as their factual status can be proven to be right or wrong – unlike with opinions.

If we were to give an opinion, such as: “He is the best leader,” “She’s the best negotiator,” “She is the best boss,” “He’s the top technical genius we’ve ever had” – these are clearly opinions, and can never really be proven as facts (how would any of these have a factual basis?).

An opinion tells you more about the person making the opinion, than the person or thing the opinion is being made about. This is critical to understand: When someone says: “She is the best expert that we have” – we don’t know about her technical expertise, but we can find out a lot about the person giving the opinion. Using some simple questions such as: “What makes you say that?” or “What makes her the best?” or “What about her performance makes you believe she is so outstanding?”

When we start arguing right or wrong about opinions, we have lost the opportunity to really understand where that person is coming from, and how they think, evaluate, and make their decisions. Using their opinions to understand their thinking gives us a tremendous amount of information that makes us more effective in our communication – and eliminates a lot of miscommunication.

So, remember, when you’re arguing right or wrong about an opinion it’s a bottomless pit – it’s going down a rabbit hole that gets you nothing. Use people’s opinions to find out what they really mean, and then you have an opening to really be able to understand them. When you understand how they think, evaluate, and make their decisions, you are in a great position to find the common ground where you can find agreement and work together.

I guarantee you that avoiding making the mistake of arguing right or wrong about opinions, and learning to differentiate between facts and opinions will make you a much more effective communicator, improve your relationships, and generate a profound level of engagement with everyone you work with.

To your success,
Steve