Pay attention to the fundamental of running a business. For instance, success is all about relationships. Everything we do requires us to be in a relationship with others, especially in our work lives. When a relationship flourishes or flounders, communication (good or bad) is usually at the core.

One common example of poor communication is confusing fact, fiction and opinion.

There are some things in life that are facts. There are some things in life that are fiction. Most things, however, are opinions.

The problem comes when we think our opinions are facts, and perhaps worse, when we think other people's opinions are fiction. Opinions are neither fact nor fiction, they are opinions.

Such thinking is an incredibly easy trap to fall into. For instance, to say the world is a sphere is a fact. To say it is flat is fiction. To say it is beautiful is opinion. That's an easy example.

To say that the company lost money last month might be a fact. To say that everything went according to plan might be fiction. To say we did a horrible job is an opinion.

Some would wiggle in their seat upon reading that. Of course we did a terrible job if things didn't go according to plan and we lost money! It may seem to be the case, it may be obvious, but it is nonetheless an opinion. Now if it happens to be the opinion of a decision-maker, someone who is in a position to judge performance, that makes it a very important opinion, but still an opinion, not a fact.

The tools

Are you in a conversation where fact, fiction and opinion are being confused? It is possible to listen to key words to determine if someone thinks they are talking about fact or opinion. Similarly, because we are recognizing the difference between fact and opinion in what we say, it is possible to modify our own speech to make it more palatable.

For instance, the statement "You are wrong," would suggest that the person speaking believes that the conversation is about fact and fiction, and that they have the facts and the other party is dealing in fiction. Conversely, the statement "I disagree" leaves open the possibility that it is a matter of opinion without demeaning the legitimacy of your position.

If someone is using the "You are wrong" approach when you believe it is clearly a matter of opinion, it can be helpful to make a comment like, "It really isn't a matter of right and wrong, it is a matter of opinion as to which option is the most desirable." This can give everyone perspective and decrease the tension.

Conflicts often pivot around what the facts are, yet they usually really are about whose opinion is the most valid, relevant or appropriate. Merely pointing this out to people often gives them just enough perspective to shift the tenor of the conversation and make it much more productive.

Skilled leaders and decision-makers have developed tools for dealing with these variables. A common one is to simply point out to people that you earnestly desire to hear their opinions, but ultimately you will need to make a decision, and not everyone will agree. The absence of total agreement does not mean the decision is incorrect, it just means that two people have different opinions and only one of those people gets to make the decision.

If you are not the decision-maker in the conversation, it can be productive to point out that the conversation gauges opinion, and further, that ultimately it will be the decision-maker in the room whose opinion will prevail. Consider thanking them for considering your opinion in the process.

Get practical

Facts are a certainty. They do not change from person to person or from one location to the next. They can be proven with evidence. 

Opinions can vary from one person to the next without either of them being wrong. They express an attitude, a belief, a judgment or a conclusion.

When you are in a conversation or facing a decision, perpetually evaluate whether you are dealing in a world of fact and fiction or just differing opinions.

Watch out for the trap of confusing fact with opinion. If the conversation is really about opinion, point this out.

Remember that most decisions are based on the opinion of the decision-maker, and this does not make the decision invalid.

Dave Bartholomew is retired after a career as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and his wife Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities. He can be reached at dave@ascentadvising.com.