Your Opinions Are Not Facts
There’s a lot to disagree about these days: politics, shutdowns, masks, travel restrictions, vaccines—you name it. And then there are the more mundane disagreements in everyday life, the little things, like setting the thermostat.
Someone wants to turn it down. You want it up. Someone says, “It’s too hot in here.” You say, “It’s not hot. It’s cold.” Before you know it, you’re in a silly argument. None of us need more aggravation, especially right now.
In order to express yourself respectfully and defuse arguments before they start, it’s important to understand the difference between facts, opinions, and toxic opinions.
A fact is a thing that is known or proven to be true:
- The Earth is round.
- Google is a search engine.
- Water is a simple molecule of positively charged hydrogen atoms and one large negatively charged oxygen atom.
An opinion is a view or judgment that depends on your assessment:
- I like pizza.
- I feel happy when I take a walk.
- I prefer to wear dark colors.
A toxic opinion is an opinion disguised as a fact:
- That project will never work.
- There’s a worldwide shortage of jobs right now.
- There’s no hope for a better life today.
Here’s why toxic opinions are problematic: When someone says “It’s too hot in here,” it’s easy to get defensive, because the statement excludes any possibility that your experience might be different. It doesn’t consider that you might be cold. “Too hot” is a relative term. It’s not a universally accepted fact.
It might be cute when a child says “Brussels sprouts are gross.” But it’s not cute when adults speak in toxic opinions.
Expressing an opinion disguised as a fact makes it toxic because it diminishes anyone else’s perspective. This is how many arguments start: one person imposes their opinion on someone else. The typical reaction is to push back aggressively, turning your own opinion toxic in response: “It’s not hot in here. I’m freezing!”
Toxic opinions invite defensiveness and open the door for arguments.
When I teach this concept to my clients, I ask them to argue with me. I say, “The room is hot.” They say, “No, it’s not. The room is fine. What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
Then I say, “Argue with me now: ‘I feel hot.’” I get blank looks. People try to argue, but it’s impossible to argue with “I feel hot.” You can disagree by saying “I feel cold,” but that’s not arguing. That’s just stating how you feel. By saying “I feel hot,” I’m not suggesting everyone else should feel that way. I’m merely describing how I feel and what I’m experiencing.
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“I” statements demonstrate personal ownership, accountability, and taking responsibility. By using an “I” statement, you can defuse an argument before it happens. Research has shown that “I” statements can reduce defensiveness and aggression.
Toxic opinions invite defensiveness and open the door for arguments. Arrogance and believing one version of reality—yours—is the only possible view underlies toxic opinions and could be the single largest creator of arguments.
There are two types of toxic opinions: impersonal and personal.
- “Conservatives don’t care about the poor.”
- “Technology is ruining our lives.”
- “Wealthy people are selfish.”
- “You’re lazy and leave all the housework up to me.”
- “You don’t listen to me.”
- “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”
You can rephrase a toxic opinion by saying “I think…,” followed by supporting facts or by stating what you experience and how you feel. An opinion or your point of view, when grounded by the facts as you see them and the knowledge that others may see it differently, is a powerful, direct, and respectful way to communicate. It’s empowering to say, “Look, this is my opinion on the subject. You may disagree, but I want you to know what I think.”
For example, “I feel hot. The thermostat says it’s 75 degrees in here,” expresses your experience and states a fact. “I think technology is ruining lives. I read a study from Harvard citing cellphone use by small children reduces cognitive brain function.” “When we agree to sit down to watch TV together, and you get on your iPad, I feel disrespected and unappreciated.”
The purpose of an opinion is not to prove someone wrong or convince them of your point of view. The goal is to speak truthfully and accurately about what you know or believe without discounting others’ experiences. Without opinions, we would have no creative dialogue or problem-solving. We would be empty shells with little or nothing to say.
Instead of creating defensiveness, an opinion invites dialogue, because you take responsibility for your point of view by saying, “I think, I believe, I propose, I suggest.” When you speak this way, it encourages others to do the same. Whether they follow your lead is up to them. You’ve done your part.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and we all have the right to express our point of view. We may agree with each other or not. But no one is entitled to impose their opinion on anyone else—whether about politics or the thermostat.
My wife and I have had numerous conversations about the thermostat in our house. She often feels hotter than I do, and we’ve had our moments. Now I wear an extra layer on cold days. She dresses more lightly. When she says, “It’s too hot in here,” I smile and say, “Oh, so you’re feeling warm? Let’s turn it down for a bit.” She looks at me and laughs and says, “Right, I am feeling warm.”
I smile because even though we both teach this stuff for a living, we don’t always get it right. We’re just humans, after all, living, learning, and trying to be the best versions of ourselves.