Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Questions That Address Claims of Fact

We were talking about the inquiry model of communication, and how we use it to arrive at better decisions. I mentioned that one way this can start is with someone offering their perspective. We first ask ourselves if we see it as relevant to the topic under discussion. If we think it MIGHT be, we explore it further by asking questions about its meaning. Finally, once we are satisfied that we understand just what the other person means, we ask ourselves about its relevance AGAIN. If we find it relevant, then we move forward with more questions to understand our counterpart’s reasoning. That is, the reasons that they have for making the claim.

I mentioned the four types of claims last time (Claims of Fact, Claims of Definition, Claims of Value (or Quality), and Claims of Policy). The questions that we ask regarding our counterpart’s reasoning are specific to the type of claim they are so let’s start by learning to identify the types when we here them and then talk about the questions we develop.

Claims of Fact

This is just what it says; a speaker is claiming something is a fact. Examples in a business setting would be:

“Our sales slump seems to be over.”

“We are ready to start hiring again.”

“Despite what the competition is saying, our product is selling well and our customers are happy.”

A claim of fact may or may not end up being a fact, but we don’t know at this stage. We are going to investigate that. The defining characteristic for a claim of fact is that it is provable by fact or data. It is not an opinion, nor does it fall into any of the either 3 categories we shall discuss. These three statements are all presented as facts. The first two are very simple (more simple than most business statements) and the third has a bit more complexity.

As we mentioned, we would first determine if we thought the statement was relevant in context. Let’s say our context is this – we are trying to decide if we should postpone the expense of a new product launch and continue selling our current product, or if we should launch the new product to try to take market share from the competition. This is a complex topic, with lots of considerations. I am using it here as an example to illustrate how we would evaluate some of the claims that may come up.

We will say that all three of the above could be relevant, and will examine the “meaning” of them. I am pretty sure I understand the first one. I may ask “What do you mean by slump; was it just a minor drop off?”, but if I have been in the loop at the company I would probably already know that. I would want to be sure that those of us in the discussion had a common understanding of what the statement meant. After the speaker explains it, I would be satisfied that it is relevant and that I understand the meaning and would be ready to evaluate the logic behind the statement.

To evaluate the logic behind a Claim of Fact, the first questions one would ask would be based on “How would we know if the statement is true?” That is, what would be acceptable as data or facts to support it? I would ask a question like “What makes you say that?” indicating that I want some supporting data. The answer that comes back can vary wildly depending on many factors, but the important thing is for you to help the group come to an understanding of what they collectively are willing to accept as supporting data. Let’s say the response is “Our sales were at the forecast level until June of 2009, when they dropped off to only 85% of forecast. They have steadily risen back and have been at or above our forecast for the last quarter. I think that since we were running to forecast, dropped off but recovered, and have remained at expected values for a quarter, we can say that the slump is over.” If the speaker is credible, we may choose to accept that we have found the criteria that we all can accept and move on to the second question. But what if the response is “Our sales are tied to the economy, and the paper says the economy is turning around, so are sales will too.” This is a far more risky response, and one that not everyone might accept without further research. It borders on an opinion, pointing to some vague reference to “what the paper says”. It might not be enough for many of us, depending on the speaker’s credibility and the importance of the decision. If there are jobs on the line, I want more data.

Let’s say that the speaker’s reply is the first one – the one that described the drop and the subsequent steady increase, and that we choose to accept it as good criteria. Then it is time for the second questions, which are based on “Now that we agree on the criteria, can we agree that we have met it?” This set of questions would be posed about the forecasted values, (“Are the forecasted values we are now hitting the SAME values that were forecasted, or are we hitting some revised levels?”) and the recovery (“Is the recovery due to increased sales, or did we reduce price in order to increase volume and are now less profitable overall?).

You may be able to think of some other questions, but recognize that there are only TWO things you are trying to settle when addressing a claim of fact: 1) What criteria can we agree on to determine if the statement is true? and 2) Did we meet the criteria?

I know I said I would cover this is two parts, but I think it is going to take me 3 more.

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