The reality is…or isn’t?

How often in a conversation or a meeting have you heard someone start a statement with the phrase “Look, the reality is…”

“Look, the reality is… it is a cultural issue”

“Look, the reality is…the organisational structure is the problem”

“Look, the reality is…the biggest factor is a lack of resources”

…and so on.

So, what is the big deal about this phrase?  It seems relatively innocuous and is somewhat commonplace in its use.  Look carefully at it though – if you think about the intention of the phrase, you may discover the sinister undertones of the statement.  In many cases, either consciously or unconsciously, the intent of the phrase is to turn an opinion into a fact In organisational life this can have far-reaching and negative consequences.

Before we consider why such a statement might be used, let’s consider the implications or impact of such a statement.  It is often highly effective in achieving its intent – seamlessly and perniciously a ‘fact’ is born!  Once a fact ‘exists’ a conversation will move in a particular direction and serve as a base upon which decisions are made and actions are taken.  It potentially has the impact of limiting or closing down other possibilities from which other insights or ideas could have been generated.  At its worst decisions get made and actions are taken based on one individual’s biases that could be well off the mark and/or completely wrong!

It would be easy to assume from the above discussion that I am suggesting people use the phrase ‘’the reality is…’’ with deliberate and knowing intent.  In fact my observation would be that it is often said by people without they, themselves, having full realization of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  I once observed someone use the phrase six times in a one-hour meeting.  It wasn’t done maliciously or in an overtly controlling manner but it was more driven by their desire for certainty and ‘wanting to get on with it’.  It might also be used to mask a lack of confidence or a desire to appear authoritative.  Of course, it may simply be used to control a situation.  There are many and varied motivations for using such a phrase.  A recent quote by post-modern Christian philosopher Peter Rollins captures the essence of this issue, “I want us to embrace doubt, complexity and ambiguity.  If we don’t do that we project our insecurities onto someone else”.

So what do you do when you encounter someone using the phrase? 

Firstly I would suggest that you don’t start making a lot of assumptions about an individual’s possible motivations (and then you acting on those assumptions which may get you into some strife!).  Ideally the focus should be on identifying and exploring other possible ‘realities’ with a view to generating more insight and understanding of a particular situation.  How might you do this?  When confronted by a “the reality is…” statement you might ask:

“How have you reached that view?” “How do you know that?” “What have you seen to support that?”

“What other factors could be driving this issue?”  “What other possibilities or reasons should we look at?”

These types of questions are merely intended to keep the possibilities open long enough to generate deeper understanding before accepting someone’s view of the world as fact.

So, just keep your ears open – you’ll be surprised how often “the reality is…” statement makes an appearance.  See how you go in trying to re-ground the conversation through a few well-placed questions.  Hopefully, with others, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.