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Sweeping statements and how to avoid them


I’m currently reading The Art of Logic by Eugenia Cheng (and thoroughly enjoying by the way). In a chapter titled ‘How to be Right’ she deals with the topic of sweeping statements. She points to the fact that, while statements like ‘you never do the washing up‘, are not meant literally most of the time, they can can nevertheless be refuted (albeit infuriatingly) by referring to one exception e.g. ‘I did the washing up one time‘.

This reminded me that sweeping statements can be a problem in board and committee meetings.

In the heat of the moment someone might say ‘all of the tenants are unhappy about this‘ or ‘this project has achieved absolutely nothing‘. Of course we might imagine, as members of the board or committee, that this isn’t really meant to be taken literally.

But we might also think ‘how can they make that statement when it’s easy to disprove?‘ and ‘if they can make a loose claim about that, what else might they be making loose claims about?

The deeper issue here is that for exchanges in boards and committees to be productive, there needs to be a two-way relationship and this in turn requires credibility and trust. Credibility and trust, however, aren’t necessarily created outside of meetings and brought in. They are constructed, one bit at a time, through our contributions and responses. In other words, what you say matters, not only for that particular point, but for the way future conversations are going to work.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, as Eugenia Cheng suggests, if we don’t want to be caught out then we need to be precise, even if it seems pedantic at times. Far better to say:

‘I’ve spoken to 20 or so tenants and they tell me that they, and the people they have spoken to, are unhappy about this’

or

‘this project has not met the targets that were provided to this committee in May’.

A second thing you can do is use qualifying statements, or ‘quantifiers’ as Eugenia Cheng calls them. As she says: “I’m careful enough to use enough quantifiers so that it’s almost impossible to be wrong”.

In practice this means putting a phrase like ‘in my opinion’ or ‘in my experience’ at the start of a contribution. This last quantifier is particularly helpful. Not only does it accurately place the whatever information you are providing but it reminds us that we should always be on the look out for more experience to give the statement more weight.

These statements are less dramatic but they are evidenced and logical. With credibility and trust still at a reasonable level, the platform is there to work out, together, what can be done to help.

In conclusion, always avoid over claiming if you can. And, don’t worry if the contribution seems unsubstantial or anecdotal as result. Something like ‘I’ve heard this from two separate parents‘ might not be enough to lead to a change in policy – but it might well trigger a further investigation that will.

 

By the way, if the ideas in this post sound like the kind of thing that you might find helpful then check out my Constructive Conversations course.

 

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