I think…(how to better respond to this phrase)

‘I think…therefore I am’, so goes the famous quote.  ‘I think…therefore I’m about to present an opinion as a fact’ might be an alternative version of this quote!

I have had my radar up recently and been noticing how often people start a statement with the words ‘I think…’ (or sometimes ‘I don’t think…’).

For example:

“I think we should just cancel the contract”

“I think we should bring them in here for a discussion”

“I think she is just not that interested in the work”

“I think they are only interested in the money”

If you listen carefully over the next few days when speaking with colleagues, participating in meetings or even watching discussions on television, you’ll hear it everywhere…people making statements starting with ‘I think…

These are obviously expressions of opinion (not dissimilar to statement beginning with ‘the reality is…’ or ‘the bottom line is…’).  Every time someone uses the phrase ‘I think…’, they are expressing an opinion. Typically, the statements fall into two categories: 

  1. Having an opinion about a situation or a person
  2. Having an opinion about a course of action that should be taken

Why do I draw this to your attention? 

As people start a statement with ‘I think…’ it is sending a strong signal that you need to be aware of – it is a signal that someone is attempting to influence you That is not bad or wrong, however there is an opportunity, in the moment, to think about how you might respond to seek to understand (as oppose to react) so as to increase the chances of engaging in a productive conversation.

Let’s take each of these two categories in turn:

  1. Having an opinion about a situation or a person – in this scenario there is a risk that one person’s opinion (especially from a senior person) is presented and taken as a fact or statement of truth. Once the opinion becomes accepted as a ‘statement of truth’ further discussion and decisions are made based on this unquestioned ‘truth’.  What if this ‘truth’ is not correct?  We might miss an opportunity or take an action that creates a problem.
  2. Having an opinion about a course of action that should be taken – in this scenario someone has, often with a high degree of confidence, often reached a view based on limited information and has decided a course of action to solve a problem.  They are typically seeking to either ‘win’ and/or quickly move to a decision/action.  Either way they are wanting you to agree with them. The risk is we may end up just uncritically agreeing with a course of action that might not solve the problem (or create a worse problem) or we might offer our own opinion and get into a win-lose argument.

Again, as I say, these situations are not wrong or bad nor sinister in their intent.  Expression of opinions is just commonplace.  It is, however, worth noticing it, both when we use it or when others use it.  When others use it, we can take the opportunity to slow the conversation down and inquire more into their thinking, rather than either uncritically accept their opinion or offering our own counter opinion:

How did you reach that view?

Are there some different ways of looking at this?

How do you know?

What might some different options be?

When we find ourselves starting a statement with ‘I think…’, we may just want to check ourselves in the moment and offer:

Here are my initial thoughts, based on this information, what do you think?

In both scenarios you are seeking to make the thinking transparent and engage in a productive conversation to identify the best solution grounded in available knowledge.  Remarkably, while ‘slowing the conversation down’ you may get to a quicker and more robust conclusion.

So, the real challenge in the initial instance is just to start noticing the use of ‘I think…’, then a world of possibilities awaits!