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?