“We can select truths that engage people and inspire action, or we can deploy truths that deliberately mislead. Truth comes in many forms, and experienced communicators can exploit its variability to shape our impression of reality.”
The truth is not as straightforward as it seems. There are many truths, some of them more honest than others. “On most issues,” writes Hector Macdonald in his book Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, “there are multiple truths we can choose to communicate. Our choice of truth will influence how those around us perceive an issue and react to it.”
We are often left with several truths, some more flattering to us than others. What we choose to see, and what we share with others, says a lot about who we are.
“There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”
— William James
According to MacDonald, there are often many legitimate ways of describing a situation. Of course, it’s possible for anyone to cherry-pick the facts or truths they prefer, shaping the story to meet their needs. MacDonald offers an apt demonstration.
A few years ago, I was asked to support a transformation programme at a global corporation that was going through a particularly tough patch. … I interviewed the corporation’s top executives to gather their views on the state of their industry and their organization. After consolidating all the facts they’d given me, I sat down with the CEO in a plush Manhattan executive suite and asked him whether he wanted me to write the ‘Golden Opportunity’ story or the ‘Burning Platform’ story of his business.
These two phrases, “Golden Opportunity” and “Burning Platform,” describe two different approaches to telling the same story, or in this case promoting the same plan. The first describes the incredible potential the client company can realize by transforming itself to meet growing demand. The profit is out there for them if they work together to make the necessary changes! The second phrase refers to internal struggles at the company and a potential downward spiral that can only be arrested if the company transforms itself to correct the problems. Both stories are true and both are intended to create the same outcome: supporting a painful and difficult transformation. Yet they can create very different impressions in the minds of employees.
MacDonald illustrates how when we interact with someone, especially someone who knows more than we do, they have an opportunity to shape our reality. That is, they can shape how we think, our ideas and opinions about a subject. Our perception of reality changes and “because we act on the basis of our perceptions” they change not only our thinking but our actions.
I remember watching ads on TV when I was a kid claiming that 80 percent of dentists recommended Colgate-Palmolive. I wondered if my mom was trying to kill me by giving me Crest. I wasn’t the best in math, but I reasoned that if 80% of dentists were recommending Colgate, at most 20% were recommending Crest.
Of course, that’s exactly what Colgate wanted people to think—the survey was in comparison to other brands. But that wasn’t the whole story. The survey actually asked dentists which brands they would recommend, and almost all of them listed several. Colgate wasn’t lying—but they were using a very distorted version of the truth, designed to mislead. The Advertising Standards Authority eventually banned the ad.
People use this sort of spin all the time. Everyone has an agenda. You can deceive without ever lying. Politicians get elected on how effective they are at “spinning truths in a way that create a false impression.” It’s only too easy for political agendas to trump impartial truth.
The Three Types of Communicators
“It’s not simply that we’re being lied to; the more insidious problem is that we are routinely misled by the truth.”
In Truth, Macdonald explores the effects of three types of communicators: advocates, misinformers, and misleaders.
Advocates select competing truths that create a reasonably accurate impression of reality in order to achieve a constructive goal.
Misinformers innocently propagate competing truths that unintentionally distort reality.
Misleaders deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality that they know is not true.
We may feel better believing there is one single truth, and thinking everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do simply doesn’t have the truth. That’s not…true. Everyone, including you and me, has a lens on the situation that’s distorted by what they want, how they see the world, and their biases. The most dangerous truths are the credible ones that we convince ourselves are correct.
One idea I find helpful when faced with a situation is perspective-taking. I construct a mental room that I fill with all the participants and stakeholders around a table. I then put myself into their seats and try to see the room through their eyes. Not only does this help me better understand reality by showing me my blind spots, but it shows me what other people care about and how I can create win-wins.
Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, goes on to explore partial truths, subjective truths, artificial truths, and unknown truths. It’s a terrific read for checking your own perspective on truth, and understanding how truth can be used to both inform and mislead you.