I heard an expression recently: “He never lets a fact get in the way of his opinion.”
It got me thinking about why opinions get a bad name. People often say, with contempt, “She’s opinionated,” as if the expression of ideas, all by itself, is automatically bad. So does this mean that one shouldn’t have opinions—that nobody should dare to think, lest they form a judgment or a viewpoint?
It’s not that opinions, by their nature, are bad. The issue is whether those opinions are grounded in fact and reason, and how effectively they can be proven. If your opinions and conclusions are based firmly in reality, then you definitely have something to say (and should say it). If not, then your method of thinking is flawed.
It all comes down to reason. In a world with no reason, opinions are based purely on emotion and, as such, are hollow and pointless. So, by all means, let the facts stand in the way of your opinions—unless the facts support them.
I suspect we all know at least a few obnoxiously ‘opinionated’ people—people who don’t give a lot of thought to their opinions. They speak before they think, and maybe even regret it later on. If you know a person like this well enough (and care enough to intervene), you should say something about it to him or her. Not sure what to say? How about something like, ‘You know, you might want to rate a thought on a scale of 1-10 before you express it.’ Or, ‘Maybe it would be a good idea to conduct some research before you render a judgment.’ These comments don’t condemn opinions in general; instead, they rightly criticize the lack of reasoning that may exist.
Opinions—truthfully offered—can be helpful. ‘What do you think of my dress?’ Or, ‘How do I look in this shirt?’ It’s a lot better to get the truth from someone than a lie. If someone you trust enough to ask a question like this—about a shirt, or something more serious—DOES lie to you (in a misguided effort to ‘spare your feelings’), then you have a bigger problem than your ill-fitting shirt: No matter what their intentions, you can’t trust this person to level with you.
Imagine a world with no opinions. It would be drab and one-dimensional. The Declaration of Independence was one gigantic list of opinions that resulted in some important freedoms we enjoy today. Many of us associate opinions only with brash or mindless people (especially when we disagree with them), but opinions based on reason can be inspiring beacons of ideas that can change the world.
Another image of an ‘opinionated’ person is one who talks and talks—about nothing in particular. This is what some psychotherapists call ‘free association’ or ‘stream of consciousness’—saying literally everything that pops into your head. This is sometimes a valuable therapeutic technique for getting in touch with one’s feelings and ‘de-repressing.’ But, let’s face it, it’s not what most of us want to hear at the dinner table or behind us in a movie theater. The character ‘Adam,’ on the brilliantly written TV show, ‘Northern Exposure,’ put it perfectly when he screamed to his compulsively chatty wife, ‘Does silence offend you??’
Although I’m not trying to encourage sarcasm among loved ones, I like the idea of ranking the relevance (and certitude) of what one says before one says it. In the words of an old friend, ‘Make sure your brain is in gear before engaging your mouth.’ If you, or someone close to you, suffers from over-expression of opinions (now THERE’S a polite way to say it), you might consider suggesting this ‘certainty ranking’ technique.
I recognize this method is not for everyone. Some people are so socially anxious and afraid to say what they really think that they need special techniques applied in a professional setting.
Not everyone is going to agree on everything, and sometimes it makes sense to ‘agree to disagree.’ But if you can’t stand leaving it at that, there are some short-but-sweet approaches you might consider. In response to a tirade about some subject with which you don’t agree, you might say, ‘I don’t see it that way.’ This shifts the burden onto the opinion-holder to ask intelligent questions about why you see things differently. If he actually does that, who knows—somebody’s mind might get changed. More likely, though, that will just be the end of it. But that’s OK too—there’s much to disagree about in life, and unless something really important is at stake, it makes sense to ‘pick your battles.’ Most of the things people fume about just aren’t worth it anyway.
And don’t forget silence. It has a lot of power; not as a way of squelching your opinions, but as a way to motivate people to listen once you express them. The less you say, the more you’ll be heard when you do speak.
And while you’re sitting silently, check your facts and reasoning—and carefully edit out all opinions that might stand in the way.