When a group must take a position or choose a direction, many groups follow a simple pattern. First they gather information, views, and options from their members or advisors. Then they choose an option. But group decisions, like personal decisions, aren't always purely rational. In many cases, pressure, tension, and emotion play important roles.
Following are descriptions of four patterns of pre-decision contributions selected for their relationship to facts and evidence.
- A report is a contribution that contains an objective fact. Reports might (or might not) include citations — references to reliable sources that validate the fact or facts contained in the report.
- There's no requirement that all members of the group accept the fact provided in the report. That is, even though a report is factual, and even though it includes citations, some members of the group might dispute the report. If the ensuing discussion is largely a debate about the validity of a fact supported by a citation, trouble looms. Unless the group can agree about what the facts are, and whether or not they are validated, the group will likely have difficulty reaching a decision that is both durable and compatible with group objectives.
- An opinion is a contribution that expresses a conclusion based on facts, but which lacks factual support sufficient for it to be regarded as entirely valid. Opinions aren't equivalent to "almost-reports," because the facts upon which opinions are based might not be directly useful for validating the conclusion expressed in the opinion.
- To determine the persuasiveness of a contribution, we must distinguish opinions from reports, but opinions and reports can be difficult to distinguish. For example, an opinion and a report can be identical, word for word, if the report lacks a citation. One tactic that can help distinguish opinions from reports that lack citations is asking the report's contributor for citations. Even better: the group can adopt a norm that contributors of reports offer citations.
- Beliefs are contributions that express what the contributor holds to be true on the basis of cultural values, personal values, or faith. An example of a widely held (and widely disputed) belief: "Software projects are always late and over budget because software engineering isn't really engineering."
- Expressions of belief (or disbelief) in business meetings are more common than many realize, because they aren't always identified as beliefs. We tend to confuse beliefs with opinions, and both beliefs and opinions with reports. Reports are substantiated with facts. Opinions are partially substantiated with facts. Beliefs are unique in that their foundations are axiomatic. Beliefs have no factual substantiation, and to many who hold the beliefs, beliefs need no factual substantiation.
- Some might regard as factual substantiation of a belief a set of specific facts that are consistent with the belief. Such contentions are misleading — they are not proof, though they might suggest a direction to search for a proof.
- Hearsay is a report of a statement by another party. The fact in the report is that the cited party made the statement, but the statement that's being reported might or might not be factual. For example, person A might state that B told A that C was a licensed masseuse. That would not be evidence that C is a licensed masseuse, but it would be evidence that B told A that C was a licensed masseuse.
- One risk of In face-to-face meetings we use
facial expressions and body language
to manage tensions that develop. In
virtual meetings, we depend more on
the nature of our contributions.hearsay is that the group might mistakenly conclude that the statement delivered by hearsay is actually a validated fact. When that happens, the group can make an unwarranted decision. Unwarranted decisions can carry unbounded levels of risk.
- A second risk arises because the term hearsay is a pejorative, having acquired a negative connotation from decades of use in popular courtroom dramas. When Group Member A identifies Group Member B's contribution as hearsay, that negative connotation can cause B to experience A's comment as an accusation about the integrity of both B and the third party B quoted. Avoid the term hearsay. Instead, ask for factual evidence: "Do we have corroboration for that?"
Reports, Opinions, Beliefs, and Hearsay provide the group rough guidance as to the direction in which a decision might lie. Next time I'll examine other kinds of contributions that evoke emotional responses that can affect group judgment. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
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— to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
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- In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles.
The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
- Ending Conversations
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- Surviving Incompetence: I
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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