If two people are in a room together and one of them is hot and the other is cold, both of those things are true.
They are truths about personal experience, equally valid at the same time.
These personal truths are separate from an objective truth which, in this hypothetical situation, is that the temperature of the room is set to 72° Fahrenheit.
“It is cold in here” would not be as accurate as saying “I’m feeling cold” – the person’s experience (cold) is true, but the room in neither cold nor hot, it is 72°.
Personal truths (the truth of one’s experience) can be distinct from an objective truth (which is quantifiable and observable). Managing the gap between these truths is an important skill for any leader – of a business, a team, or a household.
How to Navigate Simultaneous Truths
Honoring personal truths and objective truths as ‘true’ at the same time is essential. Denying either can create problems.
One person might refer immediately to personal experience, insisting that “it’s freezing in here,” while another might learn exclusively toward the objective ‘facts’, “no it’s not, it’s 72°!”
Feeling cold will not change the fact that it is 72° any more than telling the cold person the temperature will warm them up. They are two important pieces of the same situation. Both of them, true. Navigating this can be tricky, since feeling and fact often speak at the same time.
In a professional setting, saying “my boss was disrespectful” is not as accurate as saying “I felt disrespected…” – an all-too-common situation. Often, a professional colleague, moving quickly through their day, will step on the toes of an employee or coworker. Almost as often, they will do so unknowingly.
I worked with a client who was mortified when her boss ate a blueberry muffin on their morning zoom meeting. She felt disrespected. That is true. But the only objective truth is that her boss was eating a muffin. The boss’ truth was even simpler: he was hungry.
The act was not intended to be disrespectful, and the behavior was not egregious, by most standards. And the act was perceived as disrespectful, it felt like it crossed a line. These things are true at the same.
Intent matters, especially in continuing relationships. A willingness to consider intent is key to navigating the distance between personal and objective truths. Each side of the situation requires healthy communication.
Saying “my boss was disrespectful” is not as accurate as saying “I felt disrespected…”, willingness to consider intent is key to navigating the distance between personal and objective truths.”Tweet
Recognizing positive or benign intent does not relieve one of the harm they have caused, but it does create space for understanding and repair. In the case of the muffin, recalling the difference between personal and objective truths created an opportunity for what is referred to as Objective Grace, an approach to conflict management that “begins with separating the object from our perception of the object,” (Davis, 2023); it creases space for Practical Empathy, which is a process of “patience and curiosity to arrive at shared understanding,” (Davis, 2022).
“I couldn’t not see it as an insult,” Kathy (not her real name) admitted, “but I’m sure he didn’t mean it to be.”
Even with some objectivity, Kathy might still believe the behavior is inappropriate. If so, she can clearly communicate her boundaries and let her boss know that she feels disrespected. Or she can choose not to worry about it, give her boss the benefit of the doubt, and bring her own muffin to the next morning meeting.
There is no right or wrong in this situation, necessarily. Only clear thinking. The pursuit of understanding. Then, a choice.
Does Your Behavior Match Your Goal?
Alan Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity, reminds us that “we do not need action, yet we need more light,” (Watts, 2010). More visibility, more light, allows for more thoughtful decision-making. Recognizing the interplay between personal truths and objective truths is an important ray of light.
Over and over again, the world has a way of reminding us that what seems ‘obvious’ is far from universal. Truth is colored by individual filters. Individual filters (personal perspective) are influenced by experience, personal history, language, physical state, and countless other factors. So over and over again, we should slow down. We should reflect on the filter we are bringing to a situation.
One my favorite quotes came from a leader who was reflecting on a series of conversations with a partner in his organization: “when I look back on it, I’m still convinced that I was right… and I’m an asshole for thinking that’s what mattered.”
Is the goal to prove you are right? To protect your position as the smartest person in the room? Or is the goal to arrive at a place of shared understanding, in lockstep with those with whom you share a purpose?
Only you can answer those questions. Identify what matters to you, then align behaviors accordingly.
“when I look back on it, I’m still convinced that I was right… and I’m an a**hole for thinking that’s what mattered.” Consider the difference between personal truths and objective truths. #DoesYourBehaviorMatchYourGoal?Tweet
Davis, J. (2022). Practical Empathy. Teacher Leadership Magazine, Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy.
Davis, J. (2023). Objective Grace. Teacher Leadership Magazine, Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy.
Watts, A. (2010). The Wisdom of Insecurity. Second Vintage Books. New York, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.