Assessments, the Foundation of Communication

Project reviews, team meetings, client questions, proposals: We are always giving our opinion.  Assessment is another word for opinion.  Some are based on facts, some are pure judgment calls based on your experience or even intuition.  Observations are simply true or false.  They can be considered facts and are verifiable.  Here are a couple of examples.

Observation:  She graduated from CU.

Assessment:  She is smart.

Observation:  The project is located in 10% over the contracted budget.

Assessment:  The project is in trouble.

An important condition of an effective assessment is that you own it.  You must acknowledge that it is your opinion as opposed to the truth.  This creates space for the coexistence of multiple perspectives and lowers defensiveness.  This is especially important when we make assessments of people.

Assessments should also point to a positive change in the task at hand (solving the problem), the relationship (enhancing cooperation and trust), and the well-being of all participants in the conversation.  Effective opinions trigger actions that would not occur otherwise.

Making assessments is crucial to our performance in many areas, including building competence for ourselves and our teammates. Too often, though, I find that people make assessments very casually, with little commitment to action or to the people involved. People also tend to hear assessments as if they were permanent truths about a person’s character. When they listen to a negative assessment in this way, people often feel defensive or upset. They are cut off from what they might learn if they could listen more openly. On the other hand, when they listen to a positive assessment in this way they might become complacent and not see this as an opportunity to grow.

I want to make one claim very clearly: Assessments are not eternal truths.  We make assessments to further our work together.

What takes place whenever a characterization is made? It seems as if we are describing some truth about a person. Thus, we might believe a person is smart or they are not; the project is in trouble or not; and so on. We have the tendency to lose sight of the fact that they are interpretations, not facts. But assessments are not descriptions. They are opinions.  And it’s not clear that they are all useful for producing action. Calling someone “smart” for example, doesn’t help you to decide where she’s competent and can be relied upon, and where she isn’t. The value of an assessment, then, lies not in whether it is true or false, but in whether it is useful for helping one take action and to improve.

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