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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

The Return of the Rational—Separating Facts vs. Stories

Dear Joseph,

Since the election, I’ve been noodling on one of the core competencies of Crucial Conversations: Separating facts from stories. We live in strange times where many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what is something they believe is true—seeing them as equivalents. How do you have a reasonable conversation with others when you can’t even agree on the definition of a fact?

Alternative Facts

Dear Alternative Facts,

I agree with your premise even more than you do. You say, “ . . . many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what they believe . . . ” Substitute “all of us” for “many people” and I’m with you.

You’re struggling to have “reasonable conversations” and I’d suggest part of the reason might be that you have an illusion of your own invulnerability to the same massive distortion.

We smugly tell ourselves that the reason we have conflict with others is that they are subject to silly self-serving biases. We, by contrast, see the world as it is. Or, at least, far better than “they” do. We are more cosmopolitan, educated, and sophisticated. They are a bunch of mindless pawns to whatever pabulum is served up to them.

The problem isn’t that we are wrong about them. The problem is that we are wrong about us. When your feelings of rightness turn into feelings of righteousness you’ve almost always crossed the line into self-deception.

What makes this all worse, today, most of us inhabit internet filter bubbles. What we like to think is a random sample of correct-thinking humanity reinforces our deluded sense of our own objectivity dozens of times a day with invisibly, but carefully, curated content.

If you want to have reasonable conversations with those who have come to widely divergent views from yours, here are some tools:

1. Drop the adjectives. When describing others’ views—even when they are out of earshot—stop using inflated and inflammatory language. For example, making the statement, “A trade war would be a mutual suicide pact! Hasn’t he taken a basic econ class?” has a predictable influence not just on the other person, but on you. The reason for reducing your use of adjectives is not to understate your views, it is to cease escalating your own feelings of separation. You can’t communicate with someone you don’t respect. The word “communication” comes from the same root as “community” and “comity.” The word literally means “to make common.” The more you amplify your adjectives, the more you erode even the possibility of coming to common views with others. I am not suggesting you wallpaper over substantive differences you may have with other people. I am only suggesting that you be circumspect about maintaining integrity with your own facts by lacing them less often with inflammatory “stories.” For example, “My understanding of economic history is that it generally leads to mutually harmful trade wars.”

2. STATE your facts. If you want others to be more fact-based, be sure—even when among “friendlies”—to hold yourself to the same standard. It feels exhilarating sometimes to sing the chorus of our own conclusions with those who harmonize with us—but this makes for mental laziness that atrophies our patience with those who sing a different tune. Develop the discipline, when sharing your opinion in any context, of starting with the facts from which you claim to derive your conclusions. For example, if you believe tariffs are bad, why do you believe that? If you’re like me, you’ll be humbled to realize you’ve simply been repeating what those you hang out with or read from have been saying, and you may struggle to really remember the factual basis for your conclusions any more than those you’re tempted to deride.

3. Patiently walk others back down their “paths.” In Crucial Conversations we describe the “Path to Action”

The model suggests that how people act is the result of a path that begins with an experience. Our senses gather data through hearing, seeing, etc. Then we tell a story about what we experience. The story creates our feelings. And our feelings influence our actions. The problem is, our brains are designed for efficiency. So we tend not to store all the source data that shapes our stories and feelings. We tend to remember what we think or feel about things. But we don’t remember all the facts and observations that generated those stories or feelings. Thus, we are terrible at revising our views but great at arguing for their rightness. Knowing this, we can be more patient both with ourselves and others. We’re all deluded. But we can help each other out.

When someone tells you what they “think” or “feel,” gently and respectfully help him or her recover the connections to the “why.” Ask about what he or she has seen, done, read, or learned that informed these stories and feelings. Don’t provoke defensiveness by pointing out how lame and inadequate his or her evidence is. All you’ll do is rupture the safety within which he or she can rationally reconsider with a larger pool of meaning.

I hope these ideas are useful to you. I like the saying, “Oh Lord, please help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” Yet, I think in the end, we all sin in pretty similar ways.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

26 thoughts on “The Return of the Rational—Separating Facts vs. Stories”

  1. Jan


    Thank you for your thoughtful reply, always tying back to the models you and your colleagues have developed. Good method for helping others internalize the concepts in the models.

  2. Patricia Pitsel

    Great column, particularly in these times

  3. David Birren

    It’s always good advice to check one’s own assumptions and biases. This helps you determine whether you’re being a reasonable, rational person according to reasonable and rational criteria It’s also good to recognize whether the person you’re dealing with is also reasonable and rational.
    I’m reminded of the question, “Why would a reasonable, rational person do that?” Sometimes the answer is that the person is not reasonable or rational. Your insights and cautions about one’s own limitations are helpful here.
    And sometimes the person really is irrational. I suspect that’s what the original post is about. We can certainly give people room for alternative perspectives, but when it’s obvious someone is ignoring the hand in front of their face, then it’s time to call the spade black and not red.
    The best bet, in my view, is to listen. At minimum, careful listening will reveal whether the person can be engaged in rational discourse. If not, the best bet is to accept that fact and move on. Good luck if the person is your boss or spouse.

  4. Johanne Ibsen-Wolford

    Fantastic article, particularly in this polarized, political climate in which we are living! I appreciate the ideas!

  5. Jo Spellman

    Joseph, I remember years ago when first teaching a Crucial Conversations class, I told you I loved you. Just here to say I still do. Amazing, timely read. Thank you.

  6. David Edwards

    I love this useful and practical blog. This example reminds of something that I think is under-emphasized in the training programs – start with heart. if my goal is to blow off steam, make someone mad, or not really be in dialogue then we can keep the adjectives. If our goal is to fill the pool of shared meaning, we have to check our emotions and be more thoughtful, in control, and clear on our actual intent.

  7. Heather Kauer

    This is good advice and I’m not sure it quite addresses the writer’s concerns. Facts really and truly are not being agreed on in the U.S. at the moment. “Facts” like: “the former President ordered the wiretapping of the current one.” We find ourselves arguing about whether things actually happened as well as the meaning of those things, and I saw the writer’s question asking more about that. How do you have a conversation with someone who trusts “news” sources that don’t base their assertions on evidence?

  8. Michele Smith

    I love a bumper sticker I have been seeing lately. It says, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’

    1. Doreen Boettcher

      Thanks for sharing that, Michele; it’s a great one to remember!

  9. Nancy T

    To be honest, I thought the first part of your reply was very unfair to the Questioner. I did not detect a trace of arrogance in the way the question was worded, nor did it imply that he/she (the Questioner) felt that OTHERS had this problem, but he/she did not.

    1. Joan P

      I would agree. I think for those trying to find common ground, they are assumed the fool.

      With science being called into question, and the media brushed with a broad stroke, anyone seeking to find common ground should be applauded.

  10. casajarm

    I think you need to ask those “whys” of yourself first. I feel like the advice here assumes you want to convince another of some facts. But maybe once you get clear on your story you will instead try to communicate why your story (and it’s attached facts) is important to you. So, for example, instead of talking about how the other person should accept the consensus on global warming (because you feel like they should believe as you do) you could talk about how your beliefs around global warming are important to you.

    It’s easy to get lost thinking our facts and stories are right. I like to say “the universe is too complex for anyone to know if it should rain tomorrow.” I may have my reasons for feeling it would be best for it to rain tomorrow that ignore all the reasons why it should not. In other words there is no one “right”.

  11. Mary Hall

    I really enjoyed reading this article it is so true that we create our own realities thru a tunnel thank you for sharing

  12. Gayl B.

    I actually loved the advice you gave,and the way you took it back to the Crucial Conversations paradigm, but your response to “alternative facts seemed a little over the top. I did not see any name calling or misrepresented facts in the question, I ended up feeling defensive for the person who asked the question.

    That said, I was very happy to be reminded of the Path to Safety graphic. I guess I saw, told my own story, felt some feelings about your words and then wrote this post!

  13. Peter

    Well written. Useful example of CC skills.

  14. Betsy Cutler

    I have struggled to come to a common ground with people I know think differently than I, however I believe the election of Donald Trump and his appointments to cabinet are so far away from what I can honestly say are my views of the Union and the world for that matter. He DOES have an inflated ego and he is INFLAMMATORY in his speeches and actions and I can only pray that we do not go to war or destroy the environment before my children and my children’s children have a chance to enjoy it.
    God help us all.

    1. Janice Bellaire

      Betsy, What are your views of the Union and the world?

  15. GrizzLy Bear Mom

    Stephen M. Corey said seek first to understand, and then to be understood. I’ve tried to practice that for years, but sometimes forget it when very emotional. I’ll ponder my use of adjectives.

    Also, I see a figure on your email, but it’s too small to read.

  16. Karen Gentilcore

    The “Sometimes, talking is hard” videos are SO funny. Thanks for the tongue-in-cheek look at how we would love to respond but know we can’t.

  17. Curt

    Great Article and a nice reminder to search out the core truth of conversations to ensure we are all listening and addressing key issues and/or concerns which can often be surrounded by various emotions.

  18. Kathryn Krupowicz

    I really enjoyed reading this. I am the person you described, quoting back articles without remembering the details or facts. I will try this method. Thank you

  19. Rogelio De León-Jones

    Dear Joseph,

    An apropos question for our times, and a keen response on your part.

    In my opinion, the concept of POST-TRUTH –the Oxford English Dictionary word for 2016–, is very pertinent and relevant in shaping the widespread phenomenon discussed here.

    Thank you for the learning opportunity.

    Dr. Rogelio De León-Jones

  20. b

    the emotional insight i hear in your writing is usually so inspiringly profound as this log; thank you.

    for >10 years now i’ve been a student of the crucial skills newsletters hoping to become so insightful…, BUT recently i was hashing things out in the therapist’s office and (the next day) had a realization that one of the stories i bought from you has been really hard to tame!

    i’d been telling myself for years and years that most reasonable, rational, and decent (dare i say emotionally mature???) human beings will act it out if they don’t talk it out. (the implication being acting it out can have bad consequences so we should try to avoid that if possible in order to maintain safety and relationships; talking it out is one way of doing so, addressing issues before they become more riskily acted out.)

    …and yet, the lessons from the therapist’s office couldn’t have been clearer or more impactful: some people much prefer acting it out…and that’s totally their very reasonable prerogative;
    maybe it’s because they feel it’s more realistic and are otherwise scared of being “politicked” or “out-talked”(…”out-spoken” doesn’t have the connotation i’m going for there at all…),
    maybe it’s because they feel as though they don’t have enough time for such an investment (i know a major theme here is that it actually costs more time AND money in a business setting not to have crucial conversations/accountability, but i’m not the one who needs convincing!),
    maybe it’s because they just don’t want to be that intimate with me… (because i’m “intense”, understandably, when i try to talk things out…)

    regardless my sense of entitlement to what i consider adult conversation was giving my romantic and professional lives a slant that was sabotaging all my relationships and ultimately threatens to cost me my 8-year PhD in a very real, very may-not-even-get-a-master’s-degree kind of way, and i (jokingly) blame this filter bubble!

    i think that’s largely because i was about 20 when i started reading these newsletters and thought i was just behind if i didn’t understand these concepts, so i internalized them without much question; how could i have known how few readers you were reaching at that point…
    please take over the world immediately with an emotional education curriculum that i can start my children off on so that this doesn’t have to happen ever again! haha

    hopefully i can adapt the lessons i learn from you to this next level of growth; thanks a lot for the years of insight.

    (+ fun fact and case in point: i, like you, was just harping on the etymology of communication last week… but all by my lonesome since patiently walking my dean back down his path to concluding my lack of professionalism looks too much to him like questioning the politically protected subjectivity of his authority at this point no matter how many crucial skills i use…)

  21. b

    in case the relevance wasn’t clear, in a “post-truth” society, these skills become much less important than how to “act it out”.

  22. Matt R

    I thought it was a great question and had the same thought myself having reading the relevant chapter just last week. But to my disappointment it appeared to me that Mr. Grenny answered an “alternate question” instead of the one asked. I agree with other commenters that felt that the questioner was unfairly treated. I don’t think the questioner was claiming any sort of superiority rather legitimately wondering about how to apply the model in current times given the assumption in the book is that the “facts are the least controversial” and the scenarios in the book tend to treat facts as facts.
    I certainly have felt that it is beyond frustrating when even the “facts” are controversial.
    In the end, I do appreciate the advice given to gently get to the “why.” But if that why is that they belief false information, there will probably be a lot of work necessary to resolve that point.

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