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The 3 Types of Subjective Statement and The Importance of Factual Language

If you’re a UK citizen at the time I’m writing this blog, then it is highly likely that you are well aware of the ongoing 2015 General Election campaign.

I mean, let’s be honest here. If you’ve opened your laptop, turned on the TV or listened to the radio in the last few weeks, the meetingwithjohnlennonpointingatgivemesometruthwhiteboardGeneral Election has been repeatedly shoved down your throat with all the finesse and delicacy of a plumber unblocking a heavily soiled toilet.

For those outside the UK who might be reading this, the UK General Election is the time when the whole of the UK decides who it would like to form a Government for the next five years, while the politicians try to convince us to vote for them through a series of intriguing publicity stunts and the media tell us who to vote for through a series of “balanced and reasoned” debates.

For all of us as voters, the key characteristic of any General Election campaign is information overload. We are bombarded by messages from all angles. The effect is rather like sitting in the middle of a Duck enclosure during feeding time. You can’t hear yourself think for all the quacking.

And yet we’re expected to form opinions and draw conclusions from this barrage of information. We have to make decisions from this plethora of pronouncements. It’s not easy.

Now, if one is actually able to process any of these messages, with a little analysis It becomes clear that they often fit into 3 very specific categories. These are as follows:

The Moral Argument

These types of messages appeal to our beliefs and values. They make the case for a particular policy or course of action by outlining the “moral” reasons for doing them. A typical manifestation of a Moral Argument is sentences such as:

“We must invest in the NHS… because its the right thing to do for the future of our country”

“We must tax the wealthy members of society… because it’s only when working people succeed, that Britain succeeds”

“We should welcome immigration… because Britain is a fair and just society without prejudice”

And so on and so on. You get the idea.

Now, with a little analysis we can determine that the typical structure for a Moral Argument is this:

“We should <assertion>… because <value or belief statement>”

Moral Arguments try to tie ideas or concepts to subjective values and beliefs in an attempt to give them emotional credibility. They are often lacking in rational justification preferring to focus on the “feel-good factor” that comes from appealing to moral sensibilities.

That brings me on to the next type of message:

The Floating Statement

These are those infamous messages that make a bold and impressive sounding statement without offering any information to ground it in reality. They tend to be high level and never contain any detail whatsoever. Here are a few examples:

“We will reduce the deficit and balance the books”

“We will make sure every working family is supported”

“We will protect education”

“We will make the tax system fairer”

Recognise these? A typical response to this type of message is initially an approving nod of the head, but any degree of analysis eventually elicits a cry of “How?”. Floating Statements are completely ungrounded, like a balloon floating away over the rooftops and towards the clouds. Very pretty, but not anchored down and therefore ultimately headed for oblivion.

And finally…

The Et Tu Brute?

Also known as the “Stab In The Back”. This refers to messages that try to make a point through the use of fear or negative consequential language. Examples of an Et Tu Brute? include:

“If you vote UKIP, you allow Labour and the SNP to form a Government. Therefore, vote Conservative”

“If you vote Conservative, they will cut £1bn from the NHS. Protect the NHS by voting Labour”

“UKIP want to cut immigration. This will allow racism in via the back door. Therefore, if you vote UKIP, you’re racist”

“The Liberal Democrats reneged on their tuition fee pledge. Therefore, they can’t be trusted so vote for a Conservative majority Government”

Etc, etc. Very tiresome, wouldn’t you agree?

Once again, these statements have a specific format which can be identified as:

“<Accusatory statement>… Equals <Negative consequence>… Therefore <Alternative action>”

Et Tu Brute? statements are highly emotive and can often be divisive. In certain situations they can also be very personal. If they are not subjected to analysis by the recipient, these types of messages can be very powerful indeed, appealing as they do to our most basic emotion – fear.

Just Give Me Some Truth

There is one consistent factor amongst these 3 types of statement – subjectivity. Notice how each appeals to emotional sensibilities and contains little to no factual information or justification. They are not open to critical appraisal. In fact, they are about as open as Brighton West Pier. And like the famous ruined seaside attraction, they are easily broken down.

It is easy when using this kind of language to obscure the truth. Subjectivity almost always elicits an emotional response as opposed to a logical response. Facts are ignored in the face an appealing emotional hit. Our basic emotional reactions are triggered.

It is only later, after the emotional reaction has subsided that we often experience that “WTF moment”. In other words, our logical brain kicks in and sends the message – “does not compute”. But in the moment, as these subjective statements hit us, we are taken in.

It’s Not Just Politics

Now you may be thinking, “oh yes, this is typical of politics and politicians”. And you would not be alone in that sentiment. But the frightening truth is that this subjective language, this obscuring of fact through emotive proclamation, is equally prevalent in the workplace.

Have you ever sat in a meeting listening to your colleagues making a series of bold sounding proclamations followed by words such as “because I think it is the right thing to do”? You’ve got yourself an example of The Moral Argument right there.

Do you recall an encounter with a colleague during a planning meeting, where they stand up and say something which sounds awfully efficient and action-oriented – perhaps words such as “that’s agreed then – we’ll improve the way things work” – but without explaining how that might be accomplished in practice? You’ve stumbled across an example of The Floating Statement.

And have you been in a heated meeting where a colleague has said something similar to “we tried to work with that team in the past and they messed us around, so we’d best leave them out of the project”?. In the words of Julius Caesar – “Et Tu Brute?”.

These unhelpful styles of language are being used every single day in the workplace. Meetings and discussions are heavily polluted by all 3 traits. Is it any wonder our organisations are sometimes so inefficient?

Now, I’m sorry to have to inform you that not only are your colleagues engaging in this linguistic dance with the Devil, but you and I are at it too. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of using language in this way. It’s very simple to make bold emotive statements without having the facts to hand to back them up. That’s why it’s so popular.

Let’s Get Factual

We will never get to the truth or establish cold hard facts if we allow subjective language to dominate our workplaces. As I always say, you can’t change other people’s behaviour but you can change your own. Here are some tips of how to stay factual and avoid using these 3 types of subjective statement:

  • Always back up your arguments with factual information that substantiates your statement.
  • Ensure you aren’t confusing facts with opinion. If you can’t back it up, don’t say it.
  • Avoid framing statements with personal language such as “I think…” or “my opinion is…”. Use phrases such as “it seems that…”, “the facts suggest…”, “one option might be…”.
  • Don’t use negative language or make personal attacks on other parties.
  • Stay away from value driven arguments – avoid moral language and stick with objective facts.

And if you are dealing with someone who is putting out a load of subjectivity, use this simple question to engage their logical brains:

“On what basis?”

Give it a try and see how you get on. I am confident that you will find your meetings become more productive from now on.

And finally – imagine a General Election campaign based on fact, not subjectivity. Imagine politics being dominated by logical argument instead of emotional proclamation. And imagine a workplace where the rationale for doing something is clear and verifiable.

In the words of the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.

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John Hackett

Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.