Saturday, July 24, 2010

Assessing a Speaker's Credibility

What are we looking for when we question a claim during a critical conversation?

We are looking for some kind of credible backing to support the claim. We ll call it evidence, support, backing, or validation as we go through these next few newsletters, but it s all the same thing - reasons. That is why we call it "reasoning".

The first place we look for backing is with the speaker. Are they credible? In order to answer the question, let's review the elements of credibility:
  • Competence - are they generally capable in their areas of expertise.
  • Trustworthiness - do they have competing interests or opposing beliefs that could cause them to emphasize or de-emphasize important information or lead you toward or away from an objective discussion?
  • Good Will - are they disposed favorably to your organization?
  • Dynamism - a speaker's body language can indicate their engagement. Are they engaged (vs. passive)?
  • Eyewitness Access to information - are they relaying facts about things that they have actually seen?
  • Background and Training - are they adequately credentialed and knowledgeable in the topic at hand?
  • Good track record - do they have a history of coming to well-reasoned conclusions? Getting successful results?

In looking at these items, the uninitiated tend to believe that these are all or nothing kinds of qualifications. That is, either a person is trustworthy or not, competent or not, or has a good track record or not. I would debate that, but not here because I don't need to. All I have to remember are these two things:
  • We have the responsibility to determine the other party's credibility. Decisions made with credible data tend to yield better results.
  • It doesn t have to be perfect. In other words, we can t require expert level credibility as prerequisite to speaking on a subject.
I don't have a degree in meteorology, but I can still make a claim about tomorrow's weather. Why should you believe me when I do? Ask me! "What makes you say that?" is a simple question that can be used to inquire about my evidence.

If I say that "I heard it on the news" then you may be satisfied. I got the information from a recognized authoritative source.

If you feel that I may not be accurately reporting what I heard (for whatever reason) and it is important, you may double check. It doesn't matter if i was mistaken, or if i was trying to mislead you. Double checking will take care of the question regarding the correctness of the data.

If I say "I heard it from a friend" then the source may be less credible. If this is an important issue, then you may ask for more information like "how does your friend know?", or "Is your friend a meteorologist?"

If I say that "I am an amateur meteorologist with a weather station at home that I use to generate my own forecasts." , you may ask questions that help you understand my level of expertise and track record ("Where did you get the equipment (determine the level of commitment)?", "How long have you been doing it?",  or "How accurate are you compared to the National Weather service?") .

These questions don t have to be asked in a rapid fire interviewer fashion. They can be friendly and conversational. The purpose is to come to understand where the speaker's credibility on the topic may be lacking and more information is needed. The more important the information is with respect to the discussion at hand, of course, the more rigorous this process tends to be. It is not necessary for all evidence to be "iron clad" or "air tight". the more important the issue is, and the more critical the individual evidence is to the issue, the more we may press for solid evidence.

Note that if you are the speaker, you will become recognized as credible by anticipating these kinds of questions. Being prepared for this will make your perspective more believable and adoptable because YOU are more credible.

Next time, we will discuss Social Consensus (common knowledge, shared beliefs) as a form of evidence and how to analyze it.

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