Facts, inferences, assumptions, opinions. Otherwise known as FIAO. If you’ve participated in a Coro program, you likely remember learning the FIAO tool. As a Coro trainer, I appreciate its capacity to bring order and understanding to rapidly evolving cycles of information and misinformation.
During these unprecedented times, with Coronavirus (COVID-19) transforming our way of life, and taking precious lives away, it is critical for leaders at every level to ask, “How much F[act] is in our FIAO?”
We live in a moment when facts and data are often debated without deep reflection or research. Trust in data, and in experts analyzing data, has diminished. Countless platforms and “news feeds” allow us to share opinions on a wide array of subjects, and it’s all too easy to share information without knowing the source, or reading it fully.
It’s normal, and human, to shift frequently between facts, inferences, assumptions, and opinions. Using only facts to communicate isn’t realistic for any of us. But how might we challenge ourselves to consistently examine how we filter new information — especially when emotions are involved?
It’s helpful to think about how these categories of reasoning play different roles in our lives.
Inferences can help us make more informed choices. When news of COVID-19 was first emerging, I received an alumni email from Johns Hopkins that included breaking information from its Coronavirus Resource Center. After weighing the data from its science and health leaders, and similar caution from local public health sources, I inferred that it would not be a good idea to travel by airplane to a scheduled training session. This led to important early conversations about Coro’s travel policy.
Most of us know about the negative side of assumptions. If we assume everyone we’re interacting with has COVID-19, it may contribute to escalating anxiety. At the same time, assumptions can help protect us. For instance, assuming that those we come into contact with could have the virus has the power to heighten awareness — and increase the likelihood that we’ll take important precautions.
Opinions can help us make sense of our world and translate the deluge of information we receive on a daily basis. Opinions also have the power to create social cohesion; sharing opinions with friends and family can create a sense of belonging as we give voice to our hopes and fears. The shadow side of opinions? When loaded with heated rhetoric, they can cloud our capacity to thoughtfully weigh information.
Facts, on the other hand, help us refocus on a shared reality that can cut through the chatter and help us tackle challenges together. Current data-driven public health efforts and shelter-in-place orders, for example, may be “flattening the curve” in key areas, ultimately saving lives.
What makes the FIAO tool so helpful in this current moment? In a season of uncertainty, we face the risk of becoming uprooted without facts to firmly ground us. The FIAO tool can serve as a GPS to guide us towards a more balanced perspective – and contribute to healthier, and more informed conversations.
It’s possible to have a grounding in facts while still honoring the ways in which our assumptions, inferences, and opinions help us be seen, heard, and valued.
The next time you read a news story or converse with a friend, try using curious, thoughtful, and compassionate questions to help discover how much F is in the FIAO:
When you hear a friend say: “Yesterday, I started coughing uncontrollably. I’m worried I have the virus.”
Try asking: “What other symptoms do you have? How long have you had them?” (And consider looking together at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on symptoms and exploring resources to support each other in managing anxiety.)
When you hear: “I saw an elected official on the news and they are really clueless about the impact policies are having on essential workers.”
Try asking: “Tell me more. What did they specifically say that leads you to feel that way?”
When you hear: “I’m young and healthy. This lockdown should only be for older people and vulnerable groups.”
Try asking: “Am I correct that you’re saying young people are not at risk? If so, how did you arrive at that conclusion?”
We don’t have control over what others think, what leads them to their thinking, or what actions they ultimately take as a result. Yet we can each play a vital role in heightening self-awareness in ourselves and others, fostering deeper understanding and more nuanced perspectives.
As Thich Nhat Hanh, spiritual leader and activist, once said, “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”
Nnenna Ozobia is a Director of Training at Coro Northern California and an alumna of Coro’s Fellows Program in Public Affairs.