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Day 248 – Top of Mind is Not an Opinion

I think we should be generally careful of saying the first thing that comes to our mind and then calling it an opinion, or even a recommendation. One of these top of mind thoughts always starts with, “You should…”

Pretend you walk into your new job at a fast-food franchise. On day 1, your manager asks you to clean out some recently cleaned trash cans with an ounce of bleach and a gallon of hot water. A thought comes to your mind that ammonia might be better than bleach, so you reply to the manager and say, “You should really use ammonia and not bleach.”

I think you can understand how this will be received – not well. A manager is not going to take too kindly to a brand new employee telling everyone how to do the job better; rather, they are going to be more impressed with their ability to respond quickly to instructions and follow through. The manager will probably say something to the effect, “Listen, just go clean those trash cans!” You might say, “Wow, all I was saying was my opinion; fine, I will use bleach.”

Voicing your thought that ammonia might be better than bleach is not an opinion; it is the first thing that comes to mind. You might have heard somewhere that bleach is bad and ammonia is better, so the first thing you thought of was ammonia. See, you actually think this is adding value to the conversation and the relationship.  Saying the first thing that comes to your mind NEVER constitutes an opinion. In this silly example, we can clearly see that the manager of the fast food franchise did not hire you to provide unsolicited, unqualified, top-of-the-mind statements masquerading as opinion.

This is really obvious when looking at it this way, but not so obvious when looking at everything else in life. Yet this happens all the time. I do it, I hear many other people do it, and I am sure if you are reading this, you are probably realizing that you do it as well. We say the first thing that comes to mind and immediately offer that up as a recommendation, advice, or even a qualified opinion.

I overheard two women talking in a courtyard of this office building this morning. One lady was talking and explaining to the other an issue she was having with her child. The other woman listened for a few seconds and interrupted with some advice, “You should get her seen by someone, that does not sound right.” I thought about this for a few seconds. Then I realized, wow, these two people who just met each other while waiting for an appointment to see an eye doctor are trading advice on what to do about their misbehaving children, and one woman has gone so far as to recommend psychological treatment. I could tell the other woman was uncomfortable with this proposition, and the conversation quickly diverted to less serious topics.

What happened here is something that happens all the time in everyday conversation: we offer up the first thing that comes to mind as opinion, fact, or advice without really any serious consideration. Usually, there is no harm and no foul, but I wonder how often we miss the mark and do not realize just how inconsiderate that might be. I sat in a conference room once with an executive who had owned and run a business that eventually became a major enterprise, highly successful.  Some eager people who got to meet him for the first time took the opportunity to start spouting off various opinions and advice about how the “company should run.” This man was very polite, but you could sense this underlying anger brewing behind his kind demeanor. He has spent decades going through the tough parts. The bad days, the near disasters, the lawsuits, the failed projects, the times when they could barely make payroll. Finally, after 30 years, he was in a position where he could turn the business over to others, and now here were these people sitting in the conference room that was built in his honor, offering “their opinion” on how things should be.

Perhaps before we spout an opinion we should take some consideration first? How do we know we are correct? Do we have any evidence? Just because we have an idea pop into our head does not make it a sound, well-proven concept. What is our experience trying this sort of idea? Where has it succeeded, and where has it failed? If we have no experience by which to vouch for an opinion, then maybe it is best to keep our mouths shut and listen for a while. 

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