How Constructive Are Your Negative Opinions?
by Alan Sieler
What is the difference between being critical and opinionated and providing considered and respectful critique?
We’ve all got them, in fact plenty of them and they are coming out of every pore of our skin – opinions. You name it and we are likely to have an opinion about it. What are opinions? They are part of a language category called assessments, which cover opinions, judgments, evaluations, appraisals, assumptions, feedback, beliefs and values. All of these are an integral part of our everyday language in our speaking, and thinking, in our relationships and dealings with each other. This article is an opinion piece about opinions.
When we express an opinion we are making a statement about the qualities of people, things, events and circumstances; for example, she is loyal, he is lazy and she is gorgeous. It is important to note that an opinion is not a statement about whether something is factual or not factual, for example, his height is 184 cm, she lives in Footscray and he works as an IT consultant.
Do our opinions matter – aren’t they harmless utterances? Sometimes, but they can be potentially very damaging, especially our negative opinions. This is because we can be lulled into believing that our opinions are factual - really how things are – and that can have unfortunate consequences. We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths and what we put in writing and therefore cannot escape the consequences of our opinions. How responsible and constructive do you want to be in expressing your opinions, especially your negative opinions? Read on …
Part of the power of opinions is that they can be predictive; if I think John is lazy or Suzy is a hard worker I don’t only think it now, I assume that is how they will be in the future and that guides me in my perceptions of, and dealings with, them. Opinions are also powerful because they can influence others’ opinions. If I state to others that Samuel cannot be trusted others make take this “on board” as a true statement about Samuel’s character. Gossip operates in the same way – we become seduced by someone else’s opinions and came to accept them as being “gospel”.
Unfortunately assessments are part of the linguistic process by which we label, stereotype and pigeonhole people and believe the labels to be real. In this process we fall into the trap of regarding our opinions as being facts, which can lock us into thinking we are “right”, closing off possibilities for constructive discussion. Consequently we do not apply our capacity to question if there is substance to the opinions or not.
Assessments are an integral part of the linguistic environment of organisational life. People’s work is continually being formally and informally assessed, with judgments also being made about the motives and behaviour of others. Unfortunately in the author’s fifteen-year experience of executive coaching and corporate consulting there seems to be an unhealthy approach about the use of negative opinions in some organisational cultures. The attitude that can unfortunately prevail is compulsory to be critical and opinionated. The expression of positive opinions (e.g., praise) is minimised and the focus is on finding fault with others as the main means of fostering continual improvement along with enhancing public image by appearing knowledgeable and intelligent. The consequence is that a sloppy and disrespectful way of using language in which speakers can ‘throw around” their opinions and are not required to take a more responsible approach and substantiate them becomes the cultural norm with ultimately damaging consequences. An opportunity to develop a culture of considered and respectful critique is being squandered. What can be done about it?
It seems to be an inevitable part of being human that we will have negative opinions and this is not necessarily bad. What it is too easy is to overlook is the importance of being willing to be accountable for what we say. We may be significantly missing out on is the constructive power of negative opinions to enhance the learning and development of others.
There are a number of things it can be important to be attentive to in the expression of negative opinions. Before looking at this you are invited to identify a strong negative opinion you have about someone, perhaps someone who is important to you in a work or personal situation. Write that opinion on a piece of paper – not just a summary, but all the words that make up your opinion; you are encouraged to be honest with yourself in what you are actually saying about this other person.
Two considerations are important in regard to our negative opinions.
Any opinion, positive or negative, expressed by a speaker says more about the speaker than it does about what or who the opinion is about; this is because the only place an opinion can be made from is the existing perceptions of the speaker, which contain his or her preferences and prejudices, beliefs and values that they have learned from the history of their life experiences. What is the opinion you have written say about you – about your preferences, prejudices, beliefs and values?
Our opinions can “have us” because we become deeply emotionally attached to them – fall madly in love with them – and be utterly convinced we are “right”. Love can make us blind. You are encouraged to look at the relationship you have with the negative opinion you have written and consider whether you can develop a healthy emotional detachment from that opinion and be open to questioning it.
A rigorous five-step procedure, in the form of a set of questions (in italics) exists by which you can constructively examine your opinion and inquire into whether it has any substance or not.
We always speak to serve some purpose, often without knowing what that purpose is. What purpose is served by you having this opinion of the other person – how does it take care of you? You are especially encouraged to be open to listening to the first thought that comes into your thinking. (This question can be unusually expressed as “For the sake of what do I have this opinion?”)
One of the risks with negative opinions is that they can be generalizations, lacking specificity about particular behaviours in specific situations, which may result in people being labeled or stereotyped. Our opinions usually arise from specific occurrences we have experienced but we can lose touch with the specifics that gave rise to the opinion. What are specific circumstances and behaviour(s) to which your opinion is referring?
Every opinion is always a comparison with one or more standards and criteria about how things should be and could be. Negative opinions are judgments that what has happened does not meet our individual standards and criteria (which may also be shared by others). What precise standards and criteria of acceptable behaviour of yours have not been met?
(An additional question on the issue of standards can also be worth asking. One of the interesting thing about our standards is that we take an emotional stance when they are not met, which is sometimes very intense and unforgiving, being utterly convinced of the correctness of our standards insisting that everyone should adhere to them now. What emotional stance have you taken with this person who has not met one or more of your standards, and how helpful is that stance?)
Part of being prepared to substantiate an opinion is to provide factual evidence to verify what you claim to be the case. Be careful of falling into the trap of using others’ assessments as your evidence - they are not facts. With regard to behaviour, what is required are specific occurrences that have been witnessed. What can you factually point to that the person in question did and/or said that was not satisfactory that lead you to form your opinion?
There are always two sides to every story and not every aspect of someone’s behaviour matches our negative opinion of them; it is likely we have experienced positive aspects of their behaviour that we can verify. In the interest of ensuring balance in the formation of your opinion, what can you factually point to about the person’s behaviour that does not support your opinion?
What has been your experience of working through the five questions? What communication possibilities has the process opened up for you that was previously not available? What will you do differently?
While it is not suggested that each time you have a negative opinion you pull out a plastic card and work through the above set of questions. If we are begin to use language more responsibly and constructively then being alert to the usefulness of the questions to check our opinions may make an important difference to how we engage with others and the contributions we can make to their learning. We can treat another person with deep respect (legitimise them) in the expression of a negative opinion by being prepared to substantiate our judgment; we may enhance the quality of the relationship in the process.
We have a choice with our negative opinions – we can be willing to express them responsibly by seeking to substantiate them and therefore provide considered critique or we can express them irresponsibly and not be prepared to substantiate them, continuing to be critical and opinionated. One thing we can be certain of, there will be consequences for how we perceive people and the quality of the relationships we have with them whichever choice we make.
In a future edition of the newsletter we take another look at the negative opinions, this time from the perspective of being on the receiving end and how to respectfully holding the speaker accountable for his or her opinions.