Making Key Distinctions ~ Not Just The Facts Ma’am

Lately I’ve been pondering on the importance of critical thinking as a vital leadership skill.  When I talk about critical thinking I’m referring to a conscious, deliberate and focused mental practice that allows us to uncover accurate information on which we can make sound judgments and take meaningful action. So, it’s a big deal.

It is, of course, such a big deal that it requires much more than one blog post to examine. But, it occurred to me that often, one of the things that gets in the way of our ability to think critically is the way we process incoming information particularly as it pertains to the rather fuzzy distinctions we tend to make between facts, inferences, opinions and assumptions.  So, in this blog post, I think I might be able to at least shed a little light on that.

Let’s look at the definition of each of these words:

Fact is something known with certainty that can be objectively demonstrated and verified;

Inference is an interpretation of events that provides explanations for situations in which all of the facts are not available or yet to be determined;

Opinion is a subjective statement based on personal beliefs and;

Assumption is a supposition or idea that is unsubstantiated by fact or conscious reasoning.

To the critical thinker, the goal in processing new information is to get as close to fact as possible.  Facts are hard evidence.  I think it safe to say that the farther away we get from fact, the less reliable will be our evidence.  As such, it is an important leadership skill to be able to clearly identify sources of information and put them in the proper perspective.  This does not mean that facts are the only basis on which leaders will make a decision. However, it does allow them to place value on the information received and guide the decision-making process accordingly.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean when we draw conclusions based on our personal observations.  It comes from a course that my colleague and friend, Maureen Hannah and I developed on the subject of critical thinking.   It is a schematic meant to illustrate the possible conclusions that could be drawn from available information.

I think that consciously discerning between fact, inference, opinion and assumption makes room for clarity in decision-making.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “ Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts”

What do you think?

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11 Comments

Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness

11 responses to “Making Key Distinctions ~ Not Just The Facts Ma’am

  1. vicki

    so true, gwyn and very well put! and, in the “soft” world of all people interactions most rely so often on inferences, opinions and assumptions. which is why, i think, we have so much difficulty in our interpersonal relations and so much trouble in the world. now how to fix that…
    great job! vicki 🙂

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Vicki,
      I don’t know about you, but when *I* rely only on inferences, opinions and assumptions for my decision-making , I’m usually doing it because it’s faster . It is perhaps a feature of modern times, (that we so often rely on superficial information to keep things moving), but maybe if we allowed ourselves more time to explore, inquire and just think, our world would be less troubled. Who knows?
      Thanks for coming by! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your excellent model, Gwyn. Too often we draw conclusions based on assumptions, without even realizing it. As you point out, it’s not necessary to use a particular process as the basis of decision-making, but it is very helpful to know what you are basing your decision on.

  3. Gwyn Teatro

    Jesse, thank you for your kind remarks. Your point also makes me think that we are really at liberty to make decisions based on what we see, what we believe, and what we assume, as long as we are aware that the fewer the facts, the riskier the decision. 🙂

    • It IS risky. When we don’t have all the facts we need, my experience is it’s best to slow down the decision-making process. If that’s not possible, it’s helpful to understand the consequences of a poor decision. I wish they had slowed down the decision making process on the Space Shuttle Challenge launch in 1986. There was data available that was not used to make that decision.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Yes, I agree. Doing everything fast (including decision-making) seems to be a feature of our modern times. The example you cite is an excellent reminder of the value of slowing down especially when the potential for dire consequences is great.

  4. Thanks so much for this informative and helpful post, Gwyn. I teach critical thinking skills specifically in several courses and indirectly in all my courses.

    May I use this information with complete attribution to help my students understand these distinctions?

    John

    • Gwyn Teatro

      John, Thank you for your kind comment! And yes, feel free to use the information (with attribution to include Maureen Hannah, please).
      One of the things that gives me great satisfaction in writing this blog is when someone finds in it something they can use to serve their own students or clients. Thank you for that.

      Gwyn

  5. Critical thinking gives you the judgment to make wise use of analysis. One of the most dangerous things in business is the person armed with powerful analytical tools, but no critical thinking skills. That’s like a toddler with a loaded automatic weapon. You gave us a quick primer on critical thinking and closed with one of my favorite Daniel Patrick Moynihan quotes.

    That’s why I included this post in my weekly selection of top leadership posts from the independent business blogs.

    http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2011/06/01/6111-a-midweek-look-at-the-independent-business-blogs.aspx

  6. Pingback: Facts And Not Just Facts « The Critical Thinker(tm)

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