9 Jul 2011

What people do when they don’t know

Over the last two weeks I’ve had three experiences in the same category, and they made me think about the nature of human thought processes.

Two persons (A and B) from hundreds of miles apart gave me their opinions on a certain situation (call it ‘Y’),  that was rather distressing to me. Both opinions caused me further distress. I’ll tell you why. Both people knew nothing of the history and facts of the situation. Both people did the following:

  1. Made generalisations based on what people in general do.
  2. Made heavy use of the word ‘maybe’.

Well – yes – we all do the above. It is part of normal speculation. So what’s my problem? I don’t like when people use speculation and generalisation so as to introduce a half-truth or even a ‘fact’ as they may see it.

The danger of speculating and generalising if on personal issues, is that the ‘other’ does not know the situation intimately. I do not have the same kind of problem with opinions on political and social matters – they’re a separate kettle of fish.

I can only give an example. Some time ago we read in the Rock newspapers about young girls who went missing from home suddenly. Well – if you live on the Rock, your first worry might well be, that they were kidnapped. But as a parent you would not relish reading speculative opinion, especially in a newspaper, that your daughter ‘maybe ran away with a man’. Yes, the latter tends to happen frequently too, but it is not the kind of thing that goes down well. So – it’s that kind of thing I’m talking about.

I said there were three experiences. The third was my own – of a colleague (‘C’) calling me up unexpectedly and asking my opinion on a work situation. C had been suddenly given notice and made redundant. C was apologetic for calling at 19:00 on a Friday night. I could sense from the tone of voice that it was important and distressing. So – I said, “No problem.. let’s talk now”. C began outlining logically what happened, the process etc. I listened and clarified for about 10 minutes. Then I politely interrupted to say [WTTE], “I think there’s a trend in the story. Basically the employer constructed a system to reach their end and you’re dissatisfied with the fairness of the process and it’s outcome”. C asked for my opinion. I was careful to preface my statements as speculation and generalisation – mindful that I didn’t know the in’s and out’s of the situation. I drew on the experience of other similar cases, outcomes and Employment tribunals, High Court, the likely support that could be had from the trade unions, the degree of stress and expense etc.

The difference in my approach – which I think is correct was:

  1. to ‘listen carefully’.
  2. let the other person know that I’m speculating and generalising.
  3. with their permission do so in relation to other situations.
  4. speculate and generalise minimally about their individual situation – unless I’m invited to go further or deeper.

What I said to colleague C – drawing from my own experience was that s/he alone knew the depths of the situation and the salience of each issue, and that that was a lonely place to be.   I invited C to draw from the general experience I was sharing and to make their own decision. C was genuinely thankful for my time and my thoughts.  I invited C to come back to me if there was a need to bounce more ideas around.

In summary, (and I’m referring particularly to interpersonal situations) I think that when we don’t know a thing, a situation, or most of the relevant facts, we should be very restrained in the expression of opinion. Generalised and speculative opinion can cause damage and suffering. The ratio of expression should be that of the ratio of mouth to ears i.e. 1: 2 – less mouth, more ears.

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