One key learning from my ontological coaching training is a set of distinctions called Speech Acts. These were introduced by philosopher John Searles and expanded by individuals, including Humberto Maturana and Fernando Flores. The speech acts outline a set of daily constructs we use in language, including assertions, assessments, declarations, requests, offers, and promises. Language is one of the essential tools at our disposal, and understanding these distinctions can dramatically enhance our effectiveness as a leader and humans. Today we’ll cover the first two distinctions.
The first distinction is assertions. While I will use this term throughout the blog, I encourage you to substitute the term facts if that resonates better.
An assertion is a factual statement. It can be true or false. For example, “Josh Dietrich is 5’6” tall” is an assertion. It may be true or false. There is a universally accepted standard of measure for feet and inches, and we can get a tape measure and measure my height and determine whether the assertion is true or false. Here are some other examples of assertions:
- Josh Dietrich is 7’2” tall (this would be a false assertion).
- This room measures 10’ by 20’.
- The current outdoor temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Assessments (Stories, Judgments)
The second distinction is assessments. As with assertions, I encourage you to substitute stories or judgments if those terms resonate better. Most of my clients prefer facts and stories to assertions and assessments, so usually, I use those terms.
An assessment is a statement that is not factual. It is an expression of judgment from the person making the statement. Still, there is no universal standard by which an objective third party could determine the truth or falseness of the statement.
For example, I am short is an assessment. Shortness has no universal standard. I have had people shorter than I take umbrage at my assessment that I am short. From their perspective, I am not. Most people would agree that I’m short relative to professional basketball players. Relative to horse jockeys, most people would disagree. Here are some other examples of assessments:
- This room is spacious.
- This room is cramped.
- It is cold outside.
- It is perfect weather for a race.
Why This Matters
Understanding this distinction is critical because we are assessment-making machines, forming beliefs, passing judgment, and telling stories about what we observe. As we do this, we often treat those statements as facts, and when we do, we close off our minds to a world of alternate possibilities. It’s even easier to fall into this trap when we listen to others. They tell us their account of what happened, and we consider it fact. We don’t reflect long enough to realize we just got handed a bunch of assessments, and we need to dig to determine if their story aligns with the facts.
Last week we talked about fixed mindset statements. For example, “I am not strategic.” Is that an assertion or an assessment? It’s an assessment. We treat that statement as a fact when we take a fixed mindset. I cannot grow my strategic abilities. Because we accept it as fact, we avoid roles that require a strategic thinker. We shy away from opportunities to learn more about strategy. We close ourselves off to a whole host of possibilities.
When we recognize that the statement is an assessment, not a fact, we can help pivot ourselves to the growth mindset. “I am not strategic yet.” We open ourselves up to possible actions that can help us build our strategy capabilities and change the assessment of ourselves over time.
So as a first step, pay close attention to the statements you make and those made by the people around you. Recognize the difference between assessments and assertions, and don’t treat a story as if it’s a fact without some due diligence.
Grounding Your Assessments
Once you have identified an assessment, how do you proceed with the due diligence? While we can’t objectively determine whether an assessment is true or false, we can ground it to help us understand whether the facts support it. Here are a few techniques you can employ:
- Clarify the why. Why are you making the assessment in the first place? Why does it matter?
- Identify your standards. While there may be no universal standard to support your assessment, you have some internal standard that supports your assessment. It may not be a conscious standard. Take the time to reflect on your standard, make it explicit, and decide if it still supports your assessment.
- What facts support your assessment? Look at the factual statements underlying your story. What facts can you produce that support your story? Can you accumulate enough facts to convince others that your assessment is valid?
- What facts refute your assessment? Look deliberately for facts that do not support your assessment. What data suggests your assessment is incorrect?
- Whom can you consult for a second opinion? Your assessment is your view of reality. Each individual has their view of reality. Who can give you feedback that either validates your assessment or offers an alternate view?
Putting It Into Practice
I use this technique all the time when I’m coaching, and I encourage you to do the same when working with your teams. Suppose a coachee opens a session by telling me how challenging their week has been, outlining all the work on their plate, and the feeling that their boss is out to get them. We have our assessment – My boss is out to get me.
- Clarify the why. In this case, the assessment matters because the coachee worries they will lose their job. If their boss is out to get them, that’s a legitimate risk.
- Identify your standards. What behaviors constitute being “out to get you?” In this case, the coachee feels that the amount of work assigned to them, in the time allotted for them to deliver, is such that the boss would know this can’t be completed successfully. We could quantify the amount of work and the time expectation for completion.
- Next, we turn to the facts. We identify all the work that has been assigned to them. The time required for completion. I dig into what the boss specifically said. What have you said to your boss in return? Have you told your boss you can’t complete all of this work? In the exploration, we may find the coachee has never given feedback to their boss that the workload is unreasonable. We may realize that the boss has no way of knowing the coachee feels overloaded.
- Who else can you consult? Perhaps the coachee has a peer who has worked with the boss for much longer and knows them better. Can the coachee ask that peer for advice? Perhaps in so doing, they learn that the boss’s style is to delegate until the employee cracks and then back off and renegotiate.
In a scenario like this one, often by the time we are done, the coachee has a new perspective on the situation and a new plan for action.
Spend this week observing your stories and the stories of your colleagues, friends, and family. Note which ones you are treating as facts and whether you should take time to reflect and ground the assessments before accepting them as valid. If you would like to explore an assessment, schedule time with me.
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