Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation #6 – Getting Clear on and Honoring the Difference Between Opinion and Fact

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

For our purposes here, a fact is something that competent, disinterested, unattached, “ideal” observers (i.e. those who understand something and have no interest in it other than an honest assessment of its existence) agree is true. An opinion is a statement of how someone interprets, what someone believes and/or how someone feels about something – whether that ‘something’ is a fact or another opinion.

Many of us were introduced to the difference between opinion and fact somewhere in late childhood or early adolescence. Many of us seem to have forgotten this difference or have chosen to behave as though it’s not really important. My sense of this (i.e. my opinion) is that a variety of factors contribute to this forgetting or this choice. Here are a few:

  • a genuine inability or disingenuous refusal to differentiate what happened and my interpretation of what happened. E.g. after the collision of two cars at the four-way-stop intersection, one fact is that the cars made contact and sustained damage. Often, the drivers will have different interpretations (opinions) of that collision and what caused it, and will state them as ‘facts’.
  • a tendency to accept what one hears, reads or views in various media – whether television, radio, podcast, book, magazine, newspaper, etc., or from various ‘authorities’ or ‘experts’ – whether elected officials, wealthy, successful ‘celebrities’, ‘thought leaders’, or religious leaders as true or factual. We tend to do this when the medium or ‘expert’ reinforces what we already believe. This tendency applies to sacred scripture and national constitutions and charters as well.
  • often underlying each of the above bullets is an inability or refusal to engage honest self-reflection and/or critical thinking.
  • lack of awareness of anything and everything summarized in essays two and three in this series – i.e. the impact of myriad cultural and personal influences on how each of us experiences (the moments and events in) his or her life.
  • a relentless commitment to winning an argument, defending habitual thoughts, advocating a view that’s in our best interest, or discrediting a view with which we disagree (or that scares us)

These five are more than enough to get us where we need to go in the next four hundred words or so.

One way to move toward differentiating fact and opinion amid disagreement (especially when the disagreeing parties are authentically willing to listen and reflect) is to try to find what Ken Wilber has called orienting generalizations – points of general agreement that disagreeing parties may find if they step far enough back from their immediate conflict.

Consider your views on gun control, abortion, health care, race, public education, income inequality, ongoing war and minimum wage, among many other issues. Imagine what orienting generalization(s) or larger points of agreement you and an opponent might find in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of resolving these, or any local or personal issues.

Notice your own stances and biases as you do this. Tune in as best you can to what is fact and what is opinion. As best you can, zero in on your ability to differentiate events or issues and your interpretations of them. Note what ‘authoritative’ sources, if any, you rely on for ‘facts’. Get intimate with your level of engagement with critical thought and/or self-reflection: one way to begin is to interrogate any longstanding belief you hold. Identify the cultural influences of your childhood and your current life. Note the extent to which you want to win, defend or discredit in disagreement, as opposed to acknowledge, understand or learn.

As you can see, or may be beginning to see, the obstacles to open, civil, ‘adult’ conversation that leads to learning and growth for the parties involved can be significant – as can be the learning and growth themselves, and therein lies the value, the reason to try. Imagine walking away from a disagreement (or an agreement) with a renewed sense of respect for ‘the other’, and with a broader, deeper view of an issue, oneself, the other, or the world at large.

Our goal in this, and each successive essay is to provide a basic tool kit in order do the work necessary for anyone who truly wants to engage in discourse in ways that broaden and deepen understanding of self, other human beings and viewpoints – whether or not any disagreement is resolved.

In essay #7 we’ll take a look at how we might limit or replace our labels and generalizations with learning how to provide specific, factual and preferably personal examples to support our opinions.


Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 1995 (xiii-ix).

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